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The Difficult Proposition of Getting Corporations Out of University Science

Universities need corporations for research funding, and the political will for an alternative solution is limited.

In Oakland's Museum of Capitalism, there is a simple case that houses nearly 150 different pens, all given to a single doctor. Each has the logo of a different pharmaceutical drug. While the pens aren't the costliest item in any advertising budget, the reason businesses spend money on this swag is obvious: it puts their products in the minds of those doing the selling.

"Incentives, product promotion, medical education, and advertising effects how physicians interact with their patients," writes Benjamin Capps, associate professor of bioethics at Dalhousie University in Canada, in an email. "Big Pharma knows this, and therefore spends a great deal of money in areas that might tap into the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship."

If corporations influencing doctors is problematic, imagine the ethical concerns that arise when they fund academic studies that are later used to regulate (or, rather, not regulate) them. And yet, it has become incredibly common; the private sector now spends $3 on research for every $1 spent by the federal government.

There's even a phrase for the effect that corporate funding has on research results: "the funding effect." It is "an indicator of biased research that is driven by the financial interests of the for-profit sponsor." That means that the studies themselves are, somewhat clearly, at risk of ethical conflict; a corporation wouldn't fund a study that paints it in a negative light.

The second part of the "funding effect" concerns the effect it has on the consumer. Because of the awareness that corporations fund only studies that paint them in a positive light, the public trusts these studies less. Even if a study weren't faulty, it would still be subject to trust issues. (In 2016, Eater looked at how mistrust in nutritional studies has grown, beginning with the case of a non-profit promoting fitness over healthy eating based on a study funded by Coke.)

"I feel that we've got to the stage where all researchers (or 'experts') need to regain trust with the public," Capps wrotes. "We're seeing a lot of unscientific based policy."

This problem is not easily solved, particularly in an era when state and federal funding to universities is being cut at extraordinary rates. (One example is Illinois, where funding for state schools fell 61 percent during the 2015–16 school year.) These cuts force universities to fill in the blanks where they can. Removing business money without new funding sources isn't good for the public interest either; that would lead to tighter budgets, and ultimately fewer studies.

How does this get solved?

"The only [solution] I can think of is a mandatory tax or levy on companies, with revenues pooled into a common fund administered by an independent agency," writes Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University, in an email. "The levy has to be mandatory to avoid the problem of pleasing the sponsor in order to keep the donations coming."

Taxing companies to fund science isn't a novel concept. Countries in Northern Europe have been doing this for decades.

"I feel that we've got to the stage where all researchers need to regain trust with the public."

"I'm from Sweden, so we have a very traditional answer: this kind of research funding should be a public responsibility," says Sven Andréasson, a professor of social medicine at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet. "Sure, you can sell tobacco or alcohol, but you need to pay 2 percent of your profits for research, something of that nature."

The main part of this solution is that it's the people—through the mechanism of an elected government—who are making decisions about which studies are funded. But since those new taxes won't be coming in America as long as the government is dominated by Republicans, any solution will likely have to come from the university's end. This means taking a closer look at how universities, in an era of rising tuition costs, are spending their money.

"In the past ... funding was spent on teaching and research, student accommodation, infrastructure and facilities, scholarships and bursaries, and student services," writes Capps, in an email. "Now, [university money] is increasingly spent on attracting the interest of industry ... public relations, marketing and student recruitment."

The argument for attracting industry and recruiting students is essentially the same one pharmaceutical companies provide when making cheap pens for doctors: It promotes business. "What I would argue is that, without a profit incentive, universities are strengthened in their ability to 'seek the truth,' which I've identified as a component of 'the public good,'" Capps writes. "[Now], a university's purpose is no longer for the public good, but instead for-profit."

Unless universities change their primary goal, money that could be spent on research will continue being used in highly questionable ways. And until the United States government allots more of its budget—or introduces more corporate taxes—to fund research, businesses will gladly fill in the financial gaps. Meanwhile, the public's trust in science will continue to erode.

The solution better come before that public trust is lost for good.