In his book Impure Cultures Daniel Lee Kleinman (2003) addresses the relationships between the culture of the scientific laboratory that he was a participant observer in and the larger outside world of economic and industrial interests. He argues that the ideal of research institutions and places of higher learning as an “Ivory Tower” immune to the outside influences of society and industry in their pursuit of truth is, and always has been, a myth (Kleinman 2003:35). According to Kleinman, the scientific community has always been influenced by commercial and industrial interests to varying degrees over the years since the inception of the public research university (2003:37). Kleinman further argues that the culture of commerce and industry are unavoidably and pervasively influential on the culture of science (2003:31, 32).
In support of his contention that the culture of scientific research is influenced by commercial and industrial culture Kleinman gives several very specific examples of this influence. He addresses the problems and difficulties that can arise when a laboratory needs to rely on an external company to process samples due to the prohibitive costs involved in buying the equipment to do the tests itself (2003:113). The reliance of laboratories on commercially developed “kits” is another area of potential influence by industry on scientific methodology (2003:113). The ownership of Intellectual Property and associated relationships and controversy are yet another area where the scientific community is unavoidably influenced by commercial interests who are granted power through patent law (2003:136). Finally, Kleinman addresses the division and relationship between the technical and social realms, concluding that there are times when “…social factors have temporal and explanatory priority over technical factors” (2003:157)
So do these assertions hold true at Washington State University? A brief survey of web sites associated with the University finds a plethora of anecdotal support for many of Kleinman’s claims. Among a list of special grants available through the Agricultural Research Center is a program intended to develop technology that can help US asparagus producers compete with producers from South America, where worker’s wages are significantly lower (WSU:2009); the WSU Research Foundation states that its goal is to “facilitate the efficient transfer of technology, proprietary information and inventions from WSU laboratories into the marketplace for the benefit of the University, the inventors and society” (WSURF:2009); and the University’s main site showcases agricultural research that aims to “help sustain the U.S. apple industry in the face of economic and environmental challenges” (WSU:2009). Clearly the commercial and industrial sectors have a strong stake in much of the research being conducted at WSU, and also appear to exercise at least some form of control over the direction of research.
Does this influence wielded by industry and commerce pose a threat to the objectivity, free exchange of ideas, and values that are idealized by scientific academia? I think that without proper attention given to minimizing the drawbacks of these University-Industry Relations (URIs) they can pose a threat to some of these academic ideals, most notably curtailing the free exchange of information through patents and other methods of intellectual property control. However, I agree with Kleinman that “if social common sense suggests that without patenting there will be no innovation or commercialization, then there will not be” (2003:137). Although on the surface it may seem that patents and a focus on intellectual property work against the ideals of academia, and it is undeniable that they do pose that risk if misused, it is also important to remember that without some form of commercialization to bring the science to the masses, most of the research that scientists are doing is useless.
If science is to be used for the betterment of humanity and the general good of society, then someone needs to implement it in a form that humanity and society can utilize. Often this implementation costs money. Without the backing of commercial interests to turn the science into something for popular consumption where would this money come from? Therefore I believe that, while undeniably conflicting at times with the ideals of scientific academia, UIRs are a sort of necessary evil. I fully expect in the future to continue to see an increase in the number and breadth of UIRs as universities attempt to further secure their financial standing and simultaneously see that their output, in the form of scientific knowledge, is used for the betterment of society as a whole.
- Kleinman, Daniel L. 2003. Impure Cultures. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.
- Washington State University. Agricultural Research Center. 2009. Special Grants. Retrieved April 1, 2009
- Washington State University Research Foundation. 2009. For Industry. Retrieved April 1, 2009
- Prescott Papers
- Washington State University. 2009. Research. Retrieved April 1, 2009