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June 11, 2001

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  New ACE Report Fails to Remedy Ethical Problems Concerning Industry-Backed University Research

WASHINGTON - The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today issued a critical assessment of the recommendations just released by the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Alliance of Business (NAB) in their report entitled “Working Together, Creating Knowledge: The University-Industry Research Collaboration Initiative.” (www.acenet.edu/programs/bhef/)

     “Basically, the report does nothing meaningful to release universities from the suffocating grip of industry influence,” said Ronald Collins, director of the Integrity in Science Project at CSPI. “Two years in the making,” he added, “and the report does little more than endorse the status quo concerning industry-university collaborations. Its conflicts of interest recommendations are toothless and may even compound current ethical problems. Incredibly, this nearly 100-page report — overseen by the CEO of Pfizer Inc. and the president of the Association of American Universities — doesn’t add much to the public debate about ethics in science. Likewise, it does little to shed needed public light on the problems related to commercial ties between corporations and scientific researchers. Finally, the ACE-NAB recommendations are woefully inadequate to protect real academic independence.”

     Collins said that the ACE-NAB report is disappointing for the following reasons:

  • It does not encourage transparency in industry-university business relations. It fails to urge that professors routinely and publicly disclose their business affiliations, and that universities provide full descriptions of all grants and financial relations with businesses;
  • It does not urge that contracts between corporations and universities be open to public and press inspection. Basic information — such as the names of the contracting parties, the nature of the agreement, the financial terms, terms of research design and publication release, private and mandatory arbitration, and a specific statement of proprietary rights — may well continue to be withheld from the public;
  • It fails to recommend any meaningful internal-check mechanisms, such as like an independent ombudsman who can act as a potential whistle blower if ethical problems arise and are ignored;
  • The recommendations concerning “confidential agreements” are at best fuzzy in terms of safeguarding academic freedom and at worst restrict that freedom. For example, research that discovers dangers to public health and safety may be kept from the public and press inspection for up to 3 months or even more in some cases. Moreover, research findings potentially damning to corporate funders may be suppressed for the same period of time or possibly even longer depending on how contractual terms are interpreted; and
  • The recommendations concerning “background rights” — licensing arrangements granting corporations intellectual property rights over certain “background” research information developed by universities — contain no specific and practical checks to prevent conflicts and likewise do not assure public disclosure of such “background” information.

“More broadly,” Collins said, “the report fails to adequately alert the public to adverse effects that could result from private businesses setting the research agenda of the academic community. Instead of focusing on basic research and studies that could promote scholarship, health, and the environment, professors can end up helping companies promote products that offer short-term profits.”

“Regrettably,” Collins concluded, “the American Council on Education’s report takes an ethical step backwards when it should have taken several steps forwards. It seems more concerned with fostering university-corporate relations than with creating an educational environment where robust science is conducted according to high ethical norms and in ways most conducive to the public interest.”