Nature 464, 486 (25 March 2010) | doi:10.1038/464486a; Published online 24 March 2010

Industry in academia: ethical frameworks would clarify links

Annalee Yassi1, Shafik Dharamsi2 & Jerry Spiegel3

  1. Global Health Research Program, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T1Z3, Canada
  2. Centre for International Health, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T1Z3, Canada
  3. Global Health Research Program, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T1Z3, Canada

The appointment of William Chin, from the drug giant Eli Lilly, as executive dean for research at Harvard Medical School should be judged by the extent to which he can supplant his allegiance to industry and promote the university's mission of social good. Academia cannot be a “pristine bubble” striving to be “untainted and uninformed” by industry, as some critics may have implied (Nature 463, 999–1000; 2010). But universities may, nevertheless, choose to avoid industry funding and not grant academic positions to scientists employed or contracted by outside agencies for activities that could be (mis)construed as scholarly research.

Some researchers advocate standardizing rules for university–industry partnerships; others maintain that their success depends on stringent oversight by independent review panels. But universities should still be prepared to engage with community or industry counterparts. Academics can cooperate with all sectors as equals, beholden neither financially nor politically.

However, it is not always easy to stave off external influences on scholarly integrity. For example, researchers' careers may be put in jeopardy if their industry funding source dislikes their findings. If funding is then withdrawn, they cannot always count on support from their universities.

Universities need to ensure that a proper ethical framework is in place before pursuing commercial partnerships. It is important for public trust, particularly in clinical research, that they adhere to standards of accountability and access to data, as well as taking action against transgressions. To help define, promote and enforce policies that ensure academic freedom and social responsibility in research, universities should establish independent offices for ethical application of innovation and for partnership engagement.

See also Industry in academia: transparency alone is not enough.

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