Faculty discuss academic freedom

Researchers are relying more on private sponsorship, and some wonder what that means for the future.

Faculty discuss academic freedom

Emma Nelson

As universities nationwide receive less state support, many are looking for research funding from the private sector.

But this funding can come with stipulations — in the most extreme cases, faculty members say the direction of research is dictated by the sponsor, and undesirable results are prevented from being published.

Faculty members across the country are questioning the effect this “corporatization” will have on academic freedom.

One of the most recent incidents at the University of Minnesota, the “Troubled Waters” case, spurred the creation of a white paper — a report outlining steps to guide policy and solve a problem — by the University of Minnesota Senate’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee.

Some call the white paper “groundbreaking,” but others worry that it skims over pressing issues — namely, how the University will navigate the evolving research landscape.

A national trend

In February, Leigh Turner, a University bioethicist, sent a letter calling for an Food and Drug Administration investigation of Celltex Therapeutics Corporation — a company that administers adult stem cells as part of clinical trials. A few weeks later, University President Eric Kaler received a letter from Celltex asking the University to retract the letter.

Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, responded to the letter in Turner’s defense, saying that he, as a professor, is protected by the University’s policies on academic freedom.

But the academic freedom issue doesn’t only arise for those who criticize private research — it also comes into question for those who participate in it.

Due to cuts in state funding, “universities have gone through a major repositioning exercise over time,” Turner said.

Schools compensate both by increasing tuition and by seeking research funding from the private sector.

In a number of medical departments, incoming financial awards are often designated for private clinical trials, and researchers receive funding per subject involved, Turner said. Sponsors may control research outcomes in a number of ways.

Clinical trials may be designed by the sponsor for researchers to follow, or the sponsor might have researchers sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent results from being published if they are undesirable for the company.

Arthur Derse, director of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said private research sponsorship is a “double-edged sword.” Researchers rely on the private sector because it has “deeper pockets” than the federal government, but as a result those corporations also “don’t want to invest time and effort in something that won’t be profitable.”

Private sponsorship is often encouraged by the government, Turner said. In some cases, the government offers to match research funding obtained from the private sector. Researchers then face the conundrum of either seeking private funding or receiving none at all.

Government funding may also be problematic.

The University of Nebraska recently launched an initiative to pursue research grants from the United States Department of Defense, said David Moshman, a founding member of the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska.

While he believes that much of the resulting research will be “worth doing,” Moshman said having the direction of research controlled by the federal government is “not a good thing for academic freedom.”

The issue is a subtle one, Moshman said. Even if researchers are free to reach their own conclusions, the nature of the sponsorship can still affect the outcome.

“Big government and big businesses want research done on certain things and are not interested in seeing research done on certain other things,” he said.

The white paper

Discussions leading to the creation of the white paper arose from controversy surrounding the documentary “Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story.”

The film exposed pollution of the Mississippi River by industrial farming, including ethanol production. A screening and public television broadcast were both postponed by Karen Himle, then-vice president for University Relations, because of concerns about the response from the agricultural community, including a potential loss of funding for the University.

Barbara Elliott, who chaired the committee during the “Troubled Waters” case and also co-authored the white paper, said most of the committee’s work in 2010 and 2011 was in response to the controversy.

The committee produced two documents — a report addressing practical questions surrounding the case, and the white paper, which summarizes discussion that went beyond more technical policy questions.

“We started narrow because we had specific work to do, and as we did that work we of course went much more broadly,” Elliott said.

The white paper represents nearly a year of discussion and input by faculty and the University administration, said Arlene Carney, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs who serves on the committee, but doesn’t have a vote. The paper was submitted in April for publication in the American Association of University Professors online journal.

The committee also spent some time discussing the issue of “work for hire.”

When a University employer hires someone to complete work as part of a larger project, the employee doesn’t receive the protection of academic freedom.

Eva von Dassow, an AAUP member and University associate professor, said when research is privately funded and is “effectively at the behest of corporate entities,” it could potentially qualify as work for hire — and the faculty member’s academic freedom would no longer exist.

Carney said the committee plans to discuss work for hire in the future, and will collaborate with the University Senate’s Research Committee on the issue of privately-sponsored research. The University will “take a stand at a certain point,” she said.

The source of research funding does limit academic freedom, but that compromise is a reality of the current economy, Elliott said.

Critique from within

During their discussions on the white paper, the committee invited input from the Twin Cities chapter of the AAUP, headed by Naomi Scheman.

The committee first met with the AAUP last year to discuss issues surrounding pharmaceutical-sponsored research and professor Carl Elliott’s public response to it, Scheman said.

Dan Markingson committed suicide in May 2004 after participating in a University of Minnesota study sponsored by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Both Turner and Elliott called for an independent investigation, and Elliott published articles on the case.

Scheman said she was “disturbed” when the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee raised questions about whether Elliott’s actions were problematic.

Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, served as a “shield” between Turner and Celltex, Turner said, but the same was not true for Elliott. In the Markingson case, Rotenberg was responsible for representing the University in its response to Elliott’s criticism.

“Universities have a difficult time responding to internal criticism,” Turner said. “A common response is to strike back.”