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Corporate-funded research at Canadian universities raises faculty concerns
In January, Ryerson University announced a research project with Bombardier intended to develop a more comfortable aircraft-cabin prototype. The project is part of a multi-year, multimillion-dollar partnership with the jet manufacturer.
Bombardier is one of dozens of corporations that have donated more than $1 million to the university. Among those seven-figure corporate donations are companies like Facebook Canada, Loblaw Companies, Walmart Canada, and all of Canada’s ‘Big Five’ banks.
The university received $48.6 million in sponsored research income in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, representing a 40 per cent year-over-year increase. The functions for these donations include charitable contributions, the naming of campus facilities or buildings and, perhaps the most controversial, research contracts.
Businesses have had a place on campuses for decades, with corporations funding contract research by professors on projects of mutual interest. The fact it’s an established practice hasn’t stopped Canadian universities from coming under fire for not disclosing how corporate funding is influencing research conducted at the university.
The latest case involves Emily Eaton, an assistant professor at the University of Regina. Eaton filed a freedom of information request in 2017 to determine who had donated money to the school’s research on oil, gas, coal and climate change. The university refused her request, so she took her employer to court.
“If we’re going to decide as an institution that it’s OK for our researchers to engage in secret research for the benefit of corporations, then that ought to be something that we agree on or decide not to agree on,” Eaton said. “Nobody is holding universities accountable for this right now.”
The rise in corporate-funded research began its acceleration nearly two decades ago when the federal and provincial governments cut much-needed funding to Ontario universities. Over the last 20 years, public money has only continued to dry up.
In May 2019, the government of Premier Doug Ford announced it would measure the performance of Ontario’s universities to determine the funding they receive, putting up to $3 billion annually at stake for the province’s 45 publicly funded post-secondary institutions. The continued drop in public funding has caused universities to increasingly rely on private companies to fund research.
James Turk, director of Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, said that corporations generally target larger and more prestigious research universities for research. He said the likely reason Ryerson receives smaller research grants is because of its status as a relatively new university. However, Ryerson ranked second for corporate research income growth among Canadian universities in 2019.
One key guideline the Canadian Association of University Teachers uses to determine whether a corporate donation for university research can be deemed appropriate is whether the research involved a conflict of interest and whether transparency is ensured across the board. Such factors would be included in an agreement between the university and the corporation. Yet these agreements are, generally speaking, confidential.
Turk told the Ryersonian there is nothing inherently wrong with corporate-funded research at universities, so long as there are no strings attached that would prevent the research from being manipulated or stifled by the donor corporation.
“But if there were no strings, why would (the university) hide the agreement?” he said, adding that increased reliance on industry money not only limits research but could also erode researchers’ abilities to act as independent critics.
The Ryersonian asked Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi if research contracts with private partners or donors could be accessed by the public. He said some of the documents are “protected because of the confidentiality of the research.”
When Eaton asked for information on who was funding the research from her employer, she said that after over years of back and forth, the university refused her request for two reasons.
“One of the arguments is that it would imperil the academic freedom of the researchers, which I just think is ridiculous,” Eaton said. “Anybody who takes academic freedom seriously knows that it’s actually the private contracts that infringe on academic freedom.”
The other argument made by the university centred on competitiveness, meaning if the university released information about one company funding a certain type of research, it might deter funding for future projects.
Lachemi noted that Ryerson has in place a policy on the co-ordination of donation appeals and gift acceptance to protect the school’s academic freedom, integrity and autonomy.
“The first principle of this policy is that the university values will protect its academic freedom and autonomy,” Lachemi said.
Bioethics professor at Dalhousie University, Sharon Batt, and Georgetown University medical professor Adriane Fugh-Berman argue that although universities may frown on agreements that suppress academic freedom, policies regarding publishing results of research are not uniform across academic institutions. A consolidated set of enforcement measures are lacking to ensure academic integrity is not jeopardized.
“The real question is a really fundamental one about what the nature of academic pursuit is,” Eaton said. “Our jobs (at universities) are really about defining and pursuing research agendas that don’t have to be at the behest of private entities.
“We are here, first and foremost, to pursue research that is in the public good. It shouldn’t be confined to what corporations are willing to pay for.”