The progress of science and technology is necessary for any society – the only way being research. However, what is important is the objective of the research: is it to quench the thirst for knowledge and to improve the way people live or is it to make only profits ignoring the real priorities of society? The answer to this would largely lie in the fact that who funds the research – if the funding comes from a corporate entity, the intention is clear. This issue becomes more contentious when we speak of public universities or government institutions.
In the United States of America, the fate of studying and/or conducting research in public universities has become a serious matter of concern to many because of the sharp dip in state support on tuition fees and research funding, change in research priorities, program offerings, etc., especially in the last two and a half decades. Since 2000, public universities in the US have lost 25 percent of their state funding per student. The University of California at Berkeley, one of the leading public research universities in the nation, now receives only about 13 percent of its budget from state appropriations, compared with about 50 percent a few decades ago. In 1965, the federal government financed more than 60 percent of all R&D in the United States. By 2006, the balance had flipped, with 65 percent of R&D in the US being funded by private interests. Four of the direct fallouts of these trends of privatization of research in public universities are as follows:
- Increased students’ financial burden on higher education even in public universities,
- Subsidization of corporate profits by taxpayers,
- Decrease in credibility of research,
- Shift of basic research to market driven applied research.
Let us discuss the points above in brief.
Students in the US are paying a larger share of the costs of a public education than that of states. In almost half of states, they already do. That is a significant change from even a decade ago, when students picked up about one-third of the share and states paid the rest. Public colleges’ growing reliance on tuition means that student debt, which has already topped $1-trillion in the US, is poised only to rise. State-budget cuts sometimes threaten access, or at least limit students’ choices. Some universities have scaled back aid programs for low-income students; others have had to cap enrollment.
Before 1980, state research funding contracts and grants obligated inventors to assign inventions they made using federal funding to the federal government. In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act in the US permitted federally funded research to be patented and transferred to private parties instead of the government. This provision has enabled corporations to get access to profitable research that is partly state funded for earning huge profits by paying seven digit salaries to researchers. In the sector of healthcare, this is less promoting “public health”, rather turning rare diseases and cancer into profitable business enterprises — into drugs taxpayers subsidize, but which the public may not be able to all afford. The same is true for research in other fields too – effectively taxpayers are providing subsidies to corporations so that they might make windfall gains.
The credibility of corporate funded research has been under scrutiny time and again. A classic example would be the events that unfolded after the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that left 11 workers dead and 665 miles of coastlines contaminated – the biggest marine oil accident in US history. Within a month of the repair, University of California, Berkeley ecologist Terry Hazen identified a new microorganism that was eating the spilled oil and breaking it down into CO2 and water so fast that all the spilled oil “went away fairly rapidly after the well was capped.” The paper was published by Science journal and widely reported in the media – except the fact that the research was funded by BP. Many raised concerns about the research as they suspected that it was BP’s way of saying that you shouldn’t worry about the spill anymore.
Corporate funded research in the US is witnessing a sharp trend in terms of a shift towards market driven applied research from basic research. Academia is transitioning from an age of primarily basic research of broad public utility into one emphasizing applications which can be sold for profit for corporations. Though basic research lays the foundation, it is time consuming. Corporations, due to their commitment towards profit, are mostly not in favor of funding such research, which results in the changing trend.
It is important to decide for us as to how we want to view the development of science and for whose benefit should higher education and research happen. Then only can we understand the funding pattern and the intentions behind that. In India also we are witnessing a similar phenomenon happening in education and research. There has been an increasing push for self funded education, leading to increasing burden on students, and corporate funded research, which is going to change the nature of research being pursued. We should not only be wary of these developments but also resist them with all earnestness.