Opinion: Pressured to Commercialize

Is the push for science to save the still flailing economy a threat to scientific research?

By Timothy Caulfield | May 28, 2012


Today’s researchers are increasingly asked to view their work as an engine of economic growth. Commercialization has emerged as dominant theme in both the advocacy of science and in the grant writing process.  But is this push good for science? What damage might the market’s invisible hand do to the scientific process?

Of course, it would be naive to suppose that there was ever a time when the social forces that drive research have been totally pure. Government research funds have often been tethered to very specific policy goals.  And university researchers have long been nudged, prodded, and in rare circumstances, conscripted to perform specific tasks—including facilitating economic growth.  One of my favorite examples is the development of John Harrison’s marine chronometer watch, a huge technical advance that facilitated the exploration of our planet, among other things.  It was a direct product of a government funded prize implemented to improve the ability to navigate at sea, thereby making trade more efficient.

Such social forces and political agendas have resulted in significant scientific progress in a wide range of fields.  Indeed, dramatic historical events, war being the most obvious, can create a kind of “scientific punctuated equilibrium”—a time when social necessity (perceived or actual) and the commitment of significant public resources combine to allow both scientific knowledge and technology development to leap forward at a dramatic pace.  Think of the impact of WWII on the evolution of the radar, aircraft, rocketry, and the treatment of infection, to name a few.

Despite these historical examples of goal-oriented research, the current commercialization pressure still feels exceptional. It has a systemic quality. It is more than asking researchers to achieve a particular goal, such as making a watch or landing on the moon. It is an ethos that now seems to permeates every corner of the research enterprise, from the justifications used to raise funds for an area of research to the language used in grant writing and the reporting of results.

Some of our own research, which investigated the perceptions of Canadians involved in university technology transfer, uncovered an acknowledgement that commercialization pressure has hit an unprecedented intensity.  As noted by one of our tech transfer interviewees, “there is a substantial expectation now that [commercialization] will happen, which is different than 10 years ago.”

There are many recent examples of how commercialization plays out in top-down policy approaches to science.  The UK government recently justified a £220 million investment in stem cell research on the pledge that it will help stimulate an economic recovery. A 2009 policy document from Texas made the optimistic prediction that stem cell research could produce 230,000 regional jobs and $88 billion in state economic activity.  And President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address went so far as to challenge American researchers to view this moment in time as “our generation's Sputnik moment”—the opportunity to use science and innovation to drive the economy, create new jobs, and compete with emerging economies, such as China and India.

The impact of this commercialization pressure is still unfolding, but there is a growing body of research that highlights the potential challenges, including the possibility that this pressure could reduce collaborative behavior, thus undermining scientific progress, and contribute to the premature application of technologies, as may already be happening in the spheres of stem cells and genetic research. For example, might the controversial new Texas stem cell research regulations, which allow the use of experimental adult stem cell therapies without federal approval, be, at least in part, a result of the government’s belief in the economic potential of the field?

Such pressure may also magnify the growing tendency of research institutions and the media to hype the potential near future benefits of research—another phenomenon that might already be occurring in a number of domains and could have the effect of creating a public expectation that is impossible to satisfy.

Furthermore, how will this trend conflict with the emerging emphasis on an open approach to science? A range of national and international policy entities, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, suggest “full and open access to scientific data should be adopted as the international norm.” Can policy makers have it both ways?  Can we ask researchers to strive to partner with industry and commercialize their work and share their data and results freely and as quickly as practical?

While working closely with industry and asking researchers to consider the future applications of their work has clear utility, it also creates both social and scientific challenges.  Given the pervasive nature of the commercialization push, we should, at a minimum, strive to gain a greater understanding of the tradeoffs at play.  To what degree does the growing push to commercialize research threaten the traditional scientific standards of objectivity and independence?  Can researchers both commercialize and satisfy the emerging norm of open science?   More good research on such issues seems critical, as is research on the other side of the ledger.  There is, in fact, little reason to suppose that pushing researchers to commercialize will lead to the desired outcome of jobs, profits, and economic growth—and plenty of concern about the potential pitfalls of this approach.

Given what is at stake, one would hope that the emerging commercialization-infused science policy would, at least, be informed by, well, science.

Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, a professor at the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, University of Alberta, and the author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness.

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Avatar of: verynaive


Posts: 7

May 29, 2012

 commercialization often goes with secrecy, from the proposed policies I have heard about, the idea is to stop a successful line of research when it can be sold, no need to explain how it will become counterproductive for the future. In some ways it is also abusing the participant of a research team when their effort are sold off. But the biggest problem remain that researching without specific aim allows major discovery because only successful lines I pursued, we can hear everyday stories of promising drugs being abandoned after decades of effort, some of them ending up as useful research tools. Somehow academic researcher should provide broad based knowledge for the public, other professional can try to make use it for commercial application. If this changes it might become impossible to bring new "product" to the market in a human lifetime.

Avatar of: jytdog


Posts: 6

May 29, 2012

Interesting but problematic article.  Accurate in some respects, inaccurate in others. 

1) No one is pushing academic researchers themselves to commercialize.   At most universities, you actually cannot simultaneously personally commercialize your research and remain employed by the university.   It is one or the other.

2) Basic science is and remains basic science; development of an invention into a product is and remains distinct from basic research - it takes different skills and resources to acheive. The key resource is money.  Government grants fund basic research at universities.   For the most part, private money funds development of products at companies (although there is a small pool of government money through the SBIR/STTR programs for development).   

3) University researchers are encouraged and never hindered from publishing the results of their research.  

May 29, 2012

It is a very interesting article which brings out a basic idea that research must be curiosity -based and free from external pressures government or corporate. As very rightly responded university research is basic in nature which lays the basic foundation for any developing field of science. Basic research is encouraged by the universities and funding agencies. The reputation of the research worker rests upon the results reaped out of fundamental research. He or she is allowed the freedom to pursue research in the field of his or her research. When confronted by threats from natural pandemics or terrorists attack (biological or physical) the government in charge demands the expert in the field to come out with results to protect its citizens or the citizens of the globe from such threats.The creation of atom bomb or nuclear war heads or self defense system are the results of such efforts. There lurks a greater risk in classified research involved in biological warfare or weaponry or surveillance system involving satellites and the psychological war games. Here lies the need for transparency from the scientists who undertake such work which puts humanity at risk. When we look at the TV serials based on technology and genetics a common man looks bewildered and looks helpless to understand what is going in the name of research. It is very essential science must be tempered with humanitarian concerns and scientific temper must balance the scientist curiosity versus future citizens life. The efforts to make the planet safe and the progressive journey of research may unravel facts and the secrets of nature. Yet it is necessary for us to think there are limits to our scientific endeavors which erodes the safety of our environment and the planet earth. Knowledge and therefore scientific research may be value free but it must not belittle the reverence which we have for  human life.

Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 36

May 30, 2012

"No one is pushing academic researchers themselves to commercialize. "

In my experience (biomed research) "commercialization" of research is being instituted under the buzz word "translational research".  There is a huge and explicit push to shift funds and effort from basic research to translational research.  At the teaching hospital I work at all the researchers were called to a meeting and, in the nicest way possible, told that they must either move to translational research or find other employment.  This was prompted, it seems, by the NIH's own emphasis on shifting funds to translational research.

Now this isn't necessarily disastrous, we certainly do need more emphasis on getting discoveries to the patient, but I worry that people's careers, and the future of the US research effort, is being guided by an ill-defined buzz word, and that taking funds from basic research is just going to make things worse.

Avatar of: jytdog


Posts: 6

May 30, 2012

I hear you on that. There is some overlap between "translational research" (whatever that means -- Ask ten people what "transitional research" means and you will get ten different answers. Which is the NIH's fault for not being more clear). But there are important distinctions. "Commercialization" is explicitly about making money; "translational research" is not necessarily so.

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