Corporate Influence

I enjoy congruence, when seemingly random bits of information on similar subjects converge.  Novel ideas are often inspired by news nuggets from diverse sources that connect by a common thread. Today’s blog about the influence of corporate contributions on academia and non-profit organizations was stimulated by three such converging influences.

The first was sent to me as part of an email list about bees, and covered the recent announcement that Bayer CropScience made a $750,000 donation to the University of Guelph to support and preserve pollinator health through sustainable pest management. Bayer, if you don’t know, sells neonicitinoid pesticides, the top-selling pesticides in the world today, which rightly or wrongly are receiving considerable blame for causing honeybee colonies to collapse and die.

Those who support Bayer will applaud them for their concern about pollinators, while those who accuse them of beeocide are undoubtedly livid at the university’s collaboration with the evil pesticide empire.

The second converged item was an article from the 12 May 2014 New Yorker, about how the head of the Nature Conservancy, Mark Tercek, has alienated environmental purists by pushing the Conservancy towards collaborations with industry to find win-win outcomes so that industry improves its bottom line by doing environmentally friendly things. The article starts with an example of how Dow Chemical, one of the planet’s worst polluters, is being encouraged to plant trees and preserve wetlands that absorb some of their outflow pollution.

Critics are quoted in the article as condemning the Conservancy’s “schizophrenic anti-biodiversity, anti-protected-areas rhetoric,” while Tercek defends their interactions with industry as realistic and effective.

My third converged moment was at a talk I attended describing Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit that fosters partnerships between government, industry and academia. Mitacs operates by placing graduate students with corporations and government who then conduct research useful to those organizations. The students eventually use the research towards their graduate degrees.

The clear concern here is that of intellectual property, and whether the students can publish results freely when there is proprietary information involved. According to Mitacs, they can, but cynics wonder about undue influence of industry in designing and interpreting student’s experiments in which negative results might inhibit product sales.

In spite of these many concerns about corporate influence, academia and non-profit organizations have many motives for accepting industry dollars. The key reason such funding is so tempting for academics and non-profits is that we don’t have enough of it, and corporations are awash in it.

But there are other temptations as well. Products are exciting, and who doesn’t want to be part of inventing something? There is that thrill and pride that comes from being part of a team creating something that has enough value to others that they purchase it. It’s seductive, and one reason we can be so easily drawn into the corporate mindset.

There also are good strategic and philosophical arguments to be made for collaboration with industry. It’s a positive social good for industry, government, academia and non-profits to work together towards common goals, each contributing a different set of skills and experiences towards solving knotty problems in health care, energy production, transportation, environmental protection and many other social needs.

The tradeoff in accepting corporate funding and the accompanying industry culture is the loss of independence, which is perhaps the strongest value that drew many of us to academic and non-profit pursuits in the first place.

We need to create an appropriate infrastructure that recognizes the broad spectrum of stakeholders who bring differing ideals and motives to issues, while protecting the sanctity of independent research by academia and analysis/commentary/opinion from non-profits, insulating both groups from being financially beholden to special interests.

The simple solution to mitigate potential conflicts between industry interests and those of the academic and non-profit worlds would be for government to provide more funding to keep independent bodies independent and balance corporate interests. One way to do that is for government to rebalance the structure of corporate participation to insure it supports independent systems.

Perhaps a tax used specifically to generate a broad range of independent opinions from academics and non-profits would serve citizens the best, particularly on issues where corporate activity has the potential to negatively impact human or environmental health.

Corporations have gargantuan impact on our environment and virtually every aspect of human life. They should be partners with the academic and non-profit sectors, but only if their funding is buying independent analyses rather than inflating the corporate bottom line.

We are far from achieving that balance yet, as those three converged moments I started with indicate. But we do need to have that conversation, and fast, as independent thought is becoming increasingly submerged in the sea of influence that is too easily brought to bear when dollars are not disconnected from products.