Conflicts of Interest and commitment in academic science in the United States

Minerva 34 (3):259-277 (1996)
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Abstract

An interest in economic development has been extended to a set of research universities which since the late nineteenth century had been established, or had transformed themselves, to focus upon discipline-based fundamental investigations.21 The land-grant model was reformulated, from agricultural research and extension, to entrepreneurial transfers of science-based industrial technology by faculty members and university administrators.The norms of science, a set of values and incentives for proper institutional conduct,22 have been revised as an unintended consequence of the second revolution. This has happened through an accretion of gradual organisational changes that often go unnoticed, and through conflict that disrupts the status quo and makes change evident. The two forms of normative change became apparent in the emergence of group research and in controversies over conflicts of interest. With extensive financial support from government, large research groups began to replace the traditional form of professor and graduate student—still commonplace in the humanities—as the typical way of organising research, although group leaders were called “individual investigators”.23 Possessing many of the characteristics of a small business, apart from the profit motive, some of these research groups or “quasi firms” are only a short step away from turning into companies when the opportunity arises.Disputes about conflicts of interest are a step towards the transformation of norms. How they are resolved suggests the shape of the new norm; their continuation indicates that the outcome is still in question; their intensification increases the likelihood that a practice will be defined as deviant. Some conflicts of interest will be resolveable as norms change; others will be defined as fraud and be dealt with by the legal system. Conflicts of commitment may also be amenable to resolution, for example, by granting leave to establish a company. Integrating campus and company research reduces some of the potential for conflict, especially when the university holds the intellectual property rights in question.Under these new normative conditions what is left of the idea of the university as a source of disinterested expertise? As molecular biology departments have developed a complex network of industrial ties a new critical discipline of environmental science has grown up in academia. Universities are flexible institutions, capable of reconciling many diverse missions

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