Saturday 2010-10-16

University Inc. by Jennifer Washburn

Washburn spins anecdotes regarding the financial constraints faced by US universities into cautionary tales of corporate greed endangering academic honesty and basic research. Since the 1970's, US universities (Unis) have seen rising total numbers of students, the pool of Unis has expanded to absorb those students (online Unis), the prestigious Unis have had to compete in new areas in order to maintain their prestige, all while federal funding for Unis has been falling. Unis have responded by cultivating revenue streams, 1) targeting alumni donations and corporate "giving", 2) confiscating intellectual property from researchers (understandable) and students (much less so, "I pay you and you thieve from me?").

Examining biotech, Washburn reveals enough to trigger my "murk + bias = danger" reaction. Given the bias in corporate-sponsored clinical trials, and the apparent variability in Unis conflict-of-interest policies (non-standardized), it makes sense to me to insist on off-patent drugs for all treatments.

Unfortunately, Washburn walks into this same "murk + bias" trap that she accuses Unis of. For example,

The study (does Paxil kill kids?) also concluded that "most adverse events were not serious," when, in fact, seven of the children who took Paxil had to be hospitalized after suffering severe adverse effects from the drug.
-- Chapter 5, Are Conflicts of Interest Hazardous to our Health?
7 adverse out of how many kids? The book has many spin errors like this, and nowhere do I get the sense that Washburn has any self-understanding of the problem that she and our Unis face.

Currently, billions+ of commercial interests are aligned on one side of this issue, with scant resources opposing. Given these involved world-wide shifts in industry and Unis, it seems that this state of affairs is here to stay. Please add all universities to your list of opponents.

While that is my conclusion, it may not be yours. At the heart of this matter is the question: When should we preemptively remove threats and when should we wait until proven guilty? And can we create a framework for this?

Back in 1963, when (Clark) Kerr published the first edition of his highly regarded classic, The Uses of the University, he correctly perceived that the university of the powtwar period had evolved into a "multiversity," which faced the daunting task of trying to serve a diverse array of interest groups -- government, military, indusry, professors, students -- while continuing to safeguard its own autonomy.
-- Chapter 1, A New Kind of Uprising at Berkeley
During the political witch-hunts of the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, which peaked under Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in 1950-1954, the United States was consumed by a near-hysterical fear of communism. With the notable exceptions of the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin, many of the nation's colleges chose to cooperate with congressional and state committees seeking to expose and purge individuals with leftist sympathies or suspected ties to the Communist Party.
-- Chapter 2, The Lessons of History
by the mid-1970s...
To a greater extent than ever before, professors pursued their own personal agendas, with little regard for the university as a whole. Critics on the left, who had begun by defending the university's need for autonomy against the demands of the national security state, themselves began to politicize the academy to advance their own ideological and social agendas.
-- Chapter 2, The Lessons of History
Concerned that commercial interests might compromise the university's autonomy, many schools permitted their faculty to patent and license research only through an independent third party. One of the earliest of these, which grew to service large numbers of universities, was the Research Corporation, founded in 1912 to commercialize pollution control technology developed by Frederick Cottrell, a professor in the chemistry department at Berkeley.
-- Chapter 3, The Birth of the Market-Model U.
Yet he (Thomas Jefferson) was also keenly aware of the need to balance property rights with the preservation of a public domain for basic ideas, stressing thta the central task of American patent law was to "[draw] a line between the things which are worth to the public the embarrassment of an exclusive patent, and those which are not".
-- Chapter 3, The Birth of the Market-Model U.
"Not the least of our our objections is the insidious assumption that ... the banking university biomedical community is motivated primarily by venality and is incapable of effective self-regulation. This arrogation of guilt has generated a policy that is unnecessarily intrusive, restrictive, and administratively burdensome."
-- Karl J. Hittelman U Cali San Fran, reprising an investment banker
"Despite a seeming rush to judgment by political leaders and the media based on a few anecdotal reports, convincing empirical evidence that investigators' (or institutions') related financial interests in their research pose a significant threat to the integrity of that research is lacking."
-- Chapter 5, Are Conflicts of Interest Hazardous to our Health?
In 2001, The Association of Univerity Technology Managers estimated that some 180 universities owned stakes in 886 start-up ventures.
-- Chapter 6, The University as Business
"they're (university administrators) just hell-bent on trying to get these commercial operations going. They get all messed up, because all of a sudden the universities have to start thinking like companies and they're bad at that."
-- Michael Crow, Columbia's EVP of Tech Transfers, Chapter 7, Dreaming of Silicon Valley
There seems to be a Michael Lewis story hidden in here....