Ambitious AAUP Effort to Guide Relations Between Academics and Industry Meets Resistance

June 13, 2012

The American Association of University Professors has proposed sweeping new guidelines for relationships between academe and industry, but it expects—and is already encountering—opposition from key players in university research who could hinder efforts to put its new recommendations into practice.

In a draft report released today at the beginning of its annual conference here, the AAUP devotes more than 300 pages to describing 56 principles that it believes colleges and their faculty members must abide by to maintain the integrity of academic research.

The report, which cites numerous examples of perceived ethical lapses as a result of industry sponsorship of academic research, argues that "university policies and procedures for managing academy-industry engagement and financial conflicts of interest remain highly variable, inconsistent, and over all too weak."

In a statement announcing its release of the draft report, "Recommended Principles & Practices to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships," the AAUP invites comment for possible revisions and says it will seek to have its recommended principles woven into faculty handbooks, research contracts, and collective-bargaining agreements between colleges and faculty unions.

"This won't be successful unless people on individual campuses take an interest in building these rules into their guidelines," Cary Nelson, the AAUP's president, said Monday. Although many of the report's recommendations reiterate well-established rules governing academic research sponsored by outside interests, others tread new ground or bear little resemblance to current practices.

"There is a whole series of rules here that will keep industries behaving ethically," Mr. Nelson said, "and the best industries will welcome that."

Among its more-controversial recommendations, the report proposes guidelines that give faculty members much more ownership of the products of their research than most universities currently allow them. It argues that their intellectual-property rights extend to decisions involving the management, commercialization, dissemination, and public use of their inventions, and it calls for faculty senates or equivalent faculty-governing bodies to play a key role in setting the policies dealing with faculty inventions.

Friction Over Property Rights

In statements issued Tuesday, the Association of American Universities, which represents leading public and private research universities, and the Association of University Technology Managers were highly critical of the draft version of the report, especially its recommendations dealing with intellectual-property rights.

John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities, said the report "essentially ignores the role that universities play in providing the facilities and research support that make it possible for faculty members to conduct their groundbreaking research." He also argued that the draft guidelines would undermine the policies universities have had in place for decades in response to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which governs federally sponsored research and, he said, "has served the nation well by fueling a partnership of discovery and innovation among researchers, their universities, and the private sector."

Andrew Cohn, the Association of University Technology Managers' vice president for advocacy, argued that the report's recommendations "oversimplify the incredibly complex, nuanced process of academic technology transfer." He also said it "assumes that faculty alone are the most qualified to make decisions about how and to whom technologies are licensed" and "ignores the fact that most university inventions are produced by more than one faculty member and, increasingly, by faculty from collaborating universities."

Mr. Cohn added, "We believe—as do most licensees and investors—that complex license negotiations should be handled by professionals with the training and experience to manage them effectively, balancing the needs of the universities, the faculty, the licensees, and society at large."

Mr. Nelson himself said he expects medical schools to resist some of the report's recommendations dealing with conflicts of interest, which echo the editorial policies of many medical journals but differ from the policies of many medical schools in that they call for much more transparency and much tighter restrictions on research supported by outside sources. (The Association of American Medical Colleges was provided a copy of the report but declined Tuesday to comment on it.)

Shifting Landscape

The new report is one of a long line of AAUP documents, beginning with the group's foundational 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, that have discussed perceived threats to academe from commercial interests. But even the association's most-recent documents have been rendered outdated by the growing scale of commercially sponsored university research and other events, including a landmark decision on intellectual-property rights handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court a year ago.

In that decision, in the case Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University v. Roche Molecular Systems Inc., et al. (No. 09-1159), the Supreme Court held that neither universities that receive federal research grants nor the government itself has an automatic right to patents or inventions that may result from federally financed research. Although the ruling was initially heralded as helping to protect the intellectual-property rights of individual faculty members, there is some evidence that universities have responded by announcing, or weaving into faculty contracts, policies declaring they have the rights to faculty members' inventions, the AAUP report says.

"As campus administrations become increasingly interested in claiming the rights to faculty [intellectual property], the benefits of installing these principles in faculty handbooks and collective bargaining contracts is clear," the report says. It warns: "Faculty with less bargaining power, including Ph.D.'s being offered their first tenure-track jobs, are vulnerable to pressure to sign away their invention rights, possibly for their entire careers."

The report says that "we do not aim to curtail collaborations between business and academia," but "we want to help higher education faculty and administrators manage these collaborations in a manner consistent with the long-term interests of both universities and the broader public, including private industry."

Although the report's focus is on collaborations between higher education and industry, it says that some of the problems it discusses can also arise from contracts with the government and with nonprofit organizations that "can pressure faculty for results that support their agendas." The AAUP's press release announcing the report's release argues that the document does not let faculty members off the hook in its guidelines, and "spends equal time urging improved rules to make certain that faculty members conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner."

The report acknowledges that other academic and professional groups have formulated standards for protecting research integrity. But, it says, some are narrowly focused on expanding university-industry collaboration and managing intellectual property and give short shrift to concerns related to academic freedom, research integrity, and conflicts of interest. 

 "The big universities that have a lot of research investment need to know how to negotiate the areas that they might not foresee when they accept money from industry and the private sector more generally," said Debra Nails, a professor of philosophy at Michigan State University who has been involved in faculty governance of research at her institution and advised the AAUP on an earlier draft of the report. The guidance offered by the AAUP report is valuable, she said, because "universities need to know in advance what might compromise their mission."

Attempts at Progress

Most of the 56 principles espoused by the report are based on previous recommendations issued by the AAUP or other professional academic groups. But 21 of the report's principles are described as new, in that they appear not to have been endorsed by any organization before.

Among the areas where it breaks new ground, the report has an entire section devoted to strategic corporate alliances—defined as university-managed, multiyear collaborations with outside companies, the products of which generally are licensed to the sponsoring company on an exclusive basis.

The report says nearly all such agreements "present distinctive institutional conflict-of-interest concerns." They include the possibility that the alliance might distort faculty research agendas or unduly influence institutional decisions regarding where to spend money on research. Or, the report says, the sponsoring company might exert enough influence over the alliance's governance for the alliance to encroach on faculty control of peer review or academic hiring.

The alliances also potentially can bias reported research outcomes, result in conflicts between faculty members based on whether or not they are involved in the alliance, or effectively institutionalize the ties between the university and the company sponsoring the research, making it difficult for the university to assert its independence, the report says.

The report's recommended principles dealing with the management of strategic corporate alliances are based partly on a review of such contracts conducted by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research and advocacy group. They also draw heavily from guidelines for such alliances developed by Cornell University's Faculty Senate in 2005 and from internal and external reviews of a controversial five-year research agreement, since expired, between the University of California at Berkeley and a biotechnology company then known as Novartis.

The report's recommendations include calls for faculty senates or comparable governing bodies to be involved in the planning and oversight of such alliances, for universities to retain majority academic control and voting power over the alliances' governing bodies, and for transparency regarding financial sources and the criteria used in awarding research grants.

Risa L. Lieberwitz, professor of labor and employment law at Cornell who played a role in developing that university's guidelines and consulted the AAUP on its report, said Tuesday that strategic corporate alliances need to be governed by such principles. Otherwise, she said, university faculty members might lose autonomy over their research, which "undermines the integrity of our research and, ultimately, harms the public."

Among its other newly devised principles, the report says the admission of graduate students and the appointment of medical residents and faculty should not be based on their potential to work under a particular donor agreement or as part of a given research alliance.

It also urges that faculty and other academic investigators be prohibited from soliciting research funds from outside sponsors with the promise, or implied suggestion, of predetermined research results. And it calls on academic institutions to bar their faculty members, students, and postdoctoral fellows from participating in "marketing projects that masquerade as scientifically driven clinical trial research," such as the "seeding studies" that pharmaceutical companies undertake mainly to introduce doctors and their patients to new drugs.

The development of the AAUP report was financed partly by grants from the AAUP's Academic Freedom Fund, the Canadian Association of University Teachers, and the Open Society Foundations, which were established by George Soros, the billionaire investor. The AAUP says that comments on the report should be directed to Greg Scholtz, the director of its department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance.

Correction (6/13/2012, 11:26 a.m.): This article originally misstated the name of an association of medical schools. It is the Association of American Medical Colleges, not the American Association of Medical Colleges. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.