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The commercial campus
Can Brown and other universities be trusted to oversee government- and corporate-sponsored research from which they stand to benefit?
BY MICHAEL LUKAS

HOLDING A COMPUTER chip no larger than a penny, Brown neuroscience professor John Donoghue explains how he and his research team implanted a similar chip into a rhesus macaque monkey’s motor cortex, establishing "a brain/machine interface" that allowed the animal to control a computer cursor using nothing more than its thoughts. Stroking his short-cropped white beard, Donoghue leans back in the chair in his university office and describes the experiment. "We had a monkey playing a video game, and the monkey was using its hand to control a mouse to play the video game. Then, what we did was, we disconnected that mouse and ran it straight out of his brain, so that the control signal to the computer was its brain."

Donoghue sees this brain/machine interface as the exciting first step toward developing a technology that might one day help paralyzed people regain the use of their limbs. But there’s another side to the story. In spite of the scientific value and possible medical applications, the funding and likely commercialization of Donoghue’s research raises a number of questions.

Funded in large part by a three-year $4.25 million Defense Department grant, Donoghue’s brain/machine interface is a perfect example of what the Pentagon calls "dual-use technology" — research that has both civilian and military applications. While he speaks enthusiastically about the more beneficent prospects for his research, Donoghue doesn’t know just what the Defense Department plans to do with it. "They don’t tell us exactly what they’re interested in," he says. And the professor doesn’t seem to like thinking about these possibilities. After making a few guesses about military uses, ranging from uniform-embedded health sensors to remote-controlled animals, Donoghue says, "These are pretty horrible, war-like scenarios" — quite different from how he hopes the technology will be used to help heal people.

Before publishing their research in the March 2002 issue of Nature, Donoghue and two other professors from his research team founded Cyberkinetics, a neurotechnology company established, according to its Web site, "to commercialize breakthroughs in the detection and interpretation of neural signals made by neuroscientists at Brown University." Although the technology remains many years away from commercialization, Cyberkinetics has already attracted attention in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Financial Times. According to a statement released over the summer, it has also raised $9.3 million for the development of its first product, a neural interface device "designed to give severely paralyzed patients a permanent, direct brain-computer interface for the purpose of communication and control of a computer." As founder and chief scientific officer of the company, Donoghue stands to make a good deal of money from the commercialization of this publicly funded research.

Officially, Brown is guarded about its professors’ commercial activities. "The increasing interest of the faculty in participation in entrepreneurial endeavors," states the university’s conflict of interest policy, "inevitably raises questions about the potential risks of academics’ financial relationships with the private sector."

But in spite of such warnings, the university stands to profit from the success of endeavors like Cyberkinetics. "The idea is that Brown, through the research, has provided the knowledge, and for that knowledge Brown receives money," Donoghue explains. "And if there are ever sales of the product, they get a percentage of the profits." This percentage would be in addition to the more than $2 million in "indirect costs" that Brown has already received from the Defense Department. These indirect costs — a standard practice for sponsored research — are a major reason why universities court outside funding so vigorously. According to Brown’s in-house newspaper, the George Street Journal, the university receives 58 cents for every dollar that its professors bring in (usually from government agencies or corporations), in addition to the funding itself, as reimbursement for administrative costs and the use of its facilities. This means that for every $1 million a professor brings in, Brown gets an extra $580,000.

Profit, of course, doesn’t necessarily imply wrongdoing. And Donoghue’s research undoubtedly holds the promise of serving the greater good. But it also raises a number of questions: What does the military plan on doing with this brain-machine interface? How will the financial interest of academics doing this kind of work affect their research? And, perhaps most importantly, can universities — including elite institutions like Brown — be trusted to oversee the research from which they stand to profit?

SCIENTISTS CAN CONTINUE to depend, as they have for years, on a substantial amount of funding from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Defense (DOD), which derive their support from tax dollars. In 2001, according to the NSF, American universities received more than $19 billion from the federal government in research and development funding. But corporate money is becoming an increasingly large influence on campuses across the country. Since the passage of the Dole/Bayh Act in 1980, which allowed universities to patent and license the fruits of government-funded research, corporate-sponsored research has grown nearly tenfold, according to the NSF, from $291 million in 1981 to more than $2.2 billion in 2001.

With corporate sponsorship come corporate values and decisions that are often at odds with the university’s more traditional mission — fostering disinterested research for the greater public good. Not surprisingly, corporate-sponsored research is often slanted toward the corporations’ desires. Corporations often try to control what is published and when, delaying the publication of "proprietary" information, at times even seeking to suppress unfavorable findings.

This can’t take place, of course, without a certain degree of cooperation from professors and administrators. However, this march towards market values has not gone unnoticed within the halls of academia. A number of recent books — including Universities In the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2003), by former Harvard president Derek Bok, and Science In the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research? (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), by Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University — seek to draw attention to what the authors see as a troubling trend at universities across the country. While Krimsky focuses mainly on the influence of corporate funding on scientific research, Bok takes the view of a pragmatic administrator, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of the changing landscape. In an article published in April in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bok wrote, "Once the critical compromises have been made and tolerated long enough, universities will find it hard to rebuild the public’s trust, regain the faculty’s respect, and return to the happier conditions of earlier times. In exchange for ephemeral gains in the constant struggle for prestige, universities will have sacrificed essential values that are very hard to restore."

Compared to other institutions of its size and stature, Brown’s cut of the pie is relatively small. In the National Science Foundation’s 2000 list of research and development spending (which includes federal and corporate sources of funding) Brown ranked 111th among all American universities, and second to last in the Ivy League, just edging out Dartmouth. While the $81 million Brown spent by on research and development in 2000 may seem like a lot, it pales in comparison to research behemoths like Johns Hopkins (ranked first) and the University of California at Berkeley (seventh), which respectively spent $901 million and $518 million that year on research and development.

Even so, Brown is not without its share of corporate-sponsored research, questionable academic partnerships, and profit-seeking professors. From untold millions of dollars in drug company funding, and a $3 million materials-science lab developed in partnership with General Motors, to publicly funded start-ups and technology transfer, Brown is awash in research money and it faces many of the concerns posed by such critics as Bok and Krimsky.

Brown President Ruth Simmons was unavailable for comment during the reporting of this article. Andy Van Dam, the university’s vice president of research, who, according to the George Street Journal, serves as a consultant for Microsoft, declined repeated requests for an interview. Provost Robert Zimmer, however, defends the research taking place on College Hill. "Brown enters into an agreement to do research, based on the intellectual importance of the work, its connection to the research agendas of the Brown faculty, and its connection to Brown’s basic missions of education and research," Zimmer says. "In other words, corporate-funded research is part of the portfolio of the way universities fund their research and graduate education mission."

The state’s other research university, the University of Rhode Island, ranked 139th in the National Science Foundation survey, spending $50.8 million on research and development funding. While this figure may seem like a lot of money, the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council [RIEPC] — a think tank which counts Governor Donald Carcieri, Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, House Speaker William Murphy, and the presidents of CVS, Fleet Rhode Island, Lifespan, and URI, among its members — recently released a report calling on the State of Rhode Island, "To invest in research at the University of Rhode Island and to carve out a clear and compelling role for the university in meeting the state’s future economic needs."

In the report, called "Building Rhode Island’s Technology Pipeline," the economic policy council decries the state’s lack of support for higher education: "Rhode Island ranks 48th in state funds per capita spent on higher education operations, 50th in percentage of state higher education funds spent on research, and 50th in state funds per capita or state funds per $1000 personal income spent on academic research." These statistics, from 1997-1999, paint an abysmal picture. According to the NSF, however, URI received $5.4 million in research funds from the state in 2001, more than the $3.9 million received by the University of Massachusetts from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Like Zimmer, some observers contend that the mixed mission of universities is neither new nor adverse. As Eric Gould, chairman of the English Department at the University of Denver, and the author of The University In a Corporate Culture, Yale University Press, 2003), recently told the New York Times, "There are deep cultural contradictions in the way universities have developed in the last 100 years. [They] want to teach ethics and educate more Americans," Gould told the Times, while also offering the practical commodity of a college degree and the expertise desired by corporations.

Krimsky sees things differently. A small, but highly respected institution like Brown, he says, can either follow the pack or lead in a new direction. "If Brown hasn’t yet sold itself out, they are in a good position to set a gold standard for this issue," Krimsky says. "A place like Brown should maintain its traditional role and values, and do what universities do best: produce knowledge for its own sake." But faced with the choice between the tangible results of corporate-sponsored funding and the more ambiguous benefits of maintaining their traditional role, many professors and administrators are hard-pressed not to choose the former.

 

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Issue Date: September 12 - 18, 2003
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