IOWA CITY — Seventeen percent of new research money to the University of Iowa last year came from corporations and industry groups — an all-time high reflecting a national trend of greater collaboration between industry and academia.
Partnering with industry brings perks, such as well-funded niche studies and easier commercialization of new technologies or products. But some scientists worry corporate money will influence the type of research done at major universities and put pressure on researchers to hide unflattering findings.
“We take the ethics of industry partnership very seriously,” said Daniel Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development, who came to the UI in 2012 from Microsoft. But “universities are about helping the economy grow and flourish, so part of our job is helping those companies.”
Research support for Iowa universities
The UI brought in $431.4 million in external research money in fiscal 2014. Federal money still made up the largest share at 58 percent, but that’s the lowest percentage in the last 20 years.
The $71.4 million from industry was boosted by a $17 million grant from Toyota for the UI’s National Advanced Driving Simulator.
The UI’s fiscal 2015 research totals — to be announced later this week — also are expected to show strong industry support.
Iowa State University, which received $226.5 million in external research funding last year, has sought more federal money because that’s one factor in university rankings, said Wolfgang Kliemann, ISU associate vice president for research. Just under 9 percent of ISU’s fiscal 2014 funding came from corporations or industry groups, down from 15 percent in fiscal 2008.
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The University of Northern Iowa’s $40.8 million in external research support last year was 3.6 percent from industry, up slightly from fiscal 2013.
Federal funding fizzles
Research leaders across the nation said stagnant research funding is hurting American progress.
“For the fraction of the gross domestic product the U.S. invests in basic research, we have dropped from second (in the world) to 12th in the last 10 to 15 years,” Reed said. “That’s very worrisome.”
The National Institutes of Health is the leading supporter of biomedical research worldwide, sponsoring about $30 billion in research a year. Funding for the agency grew steadily until the early 2000s, when is started to flatten. Sequestration in 2013 cut $1.5 billion from the NIH budget, which resulted in 700 fewer grant awards that year. Congress returned about $1 billion of the funding in fiscal 2014.
Competition for federal research grants is fierce. Only 18.1 percent of 51,000 grant applications the NIH reviewed in fiscal 2014 were funded, down from 31.5 percent in 2000.
The federal government is more likely to fund open-ended scientific discovery, whereas industry groups want answers to specific questions, ISU’s Kliemann said.
For example, Matthew Ellinwood, an ISU associate animal science professor, has received federal grants for general research on pathogenesis and therapies of genetic diseases in animals as models for human disease, Kliemann said. On the industry side, Ellinwood recently obtained a $621,000 grant from BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc. for “a 26 week or longer intracerebroventricular infusion study of BMN 250 administered biweekly to a canine.”
BMN 250 is a BioMarin drug in clinical trials to treat Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare genetic disease that causes fatal brain damage.
Industry partners also can help university researchers turn an idea into a product.
Argo Genesis Chemical, a sister company of Illinois-based Seneca Petroleum, paid more than $6 million to develop a pilot plant facility near Boone for ISU research on biopolymers to replace petroleum products in materials that include rubber, packaging materials and coatings, said Chris Williams, an ISU associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.
“AGC has paid for ongoing research work necessary to transition the lab scale toward commercialization,” Williams said.
David Cwiertny, a UI civil and environmental engineering associate professor, receives nearly all his research funding from federal agencies including the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
Cwiertny and his team have an EPA grant to study ways small communities can better filter drinking water. The research group has received national attention for discovering how trenbolone acetate, a steroid given to cattle and later found in water sources, breaks down in sunlight, but rebuilds in the dark.
Companies or industry groups typically seek out environmental researchers for one of three purposes: to study how to clean up contaminated sites, to validate products or to work together to solve a large-scale environmental problem, Cwiertny said.
When he’s been approached about industry collaboration, Cwiertny makes sure the company isn’t going to try to control the study or prevent publication of the findings.
“I’ve been very selective to make sure I won’t ever be put in an ethical compromise,” Cwiertny said.
As federal funding becomes more competitive, there may be added pressure for researchers to accept industry money with strings attached.
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“I would like to think researchers wouldn’t do that, but this is their livelihood,” Cwiertny said. “They may be less stringent with their agreements.”
Study reports ethical lapses
A study published in 2009 in the journal Accountability in Research concluded American medical researchers had firsthand knowledge of researchers compromising on research initiatives, publication results and interpretation of research data because of industry support.
The survey involved more than 500 medical researchers from dozens of American universities.
“Considering only those who scored high on the index of support — meaning that they received several forms of industry support that they rated as ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ — we found that 28 percent had been asked either to withhold results, delay publication, present results more favorably or keep the project secret,” according to the study by Patricia Tereskerz, an associate professor of medical education at the University of Virginia.
Some researchers said they knew of cases in which industry requests had resulted in withheld data or changes in research focus, according to the study funded by the federal government.
Protecting academic integrity
Universities scrutinize research agreements to protect academic integrity from this type of corruption, officials said.
At ISU, the department chair, dean and officer of sponsored programs are among administrators that review research deals, Kliemann said. They want to hammer out who gets rights to intellectual property and make sure scientists are free to publish findings. If an industry partner wants publication restrictions, the provost or university president must sign off, Kliemann said.
He could recall only one of these cases in recent years.
The UI has received 21 requests since 2010 from companies or industry groups that wanted to see studies before publication, Reed said. The UI has granted 18 of those but has never approved a project in which the industry sponsor wanted the right to keep the information secret or tweak the findings.
“We want open and free publication,” Reed said. “That’s non-negotiable if students are involved in the project because they need publication to graduate.”