A modern ‘two cultures’?

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up shots of documents clipped together and stack on top of each other, on a workers desk.

Increasingly governments, and indeed university councils, expect academics to engage more comprehensively with the private sector in research. The logic behind this encouragement is overwhelming. In countries such as New Zealand, it is increasingly rare to find a significant group of empirical researchers in the biological or physical or engineering sciences that is not engaged with the private sector.

But this move is not without its tensions and conflicts. There remains a significant group of academics who believe that such engagement is against academic tradition, or that in some way such applied research is of lesser standing than academic research. This perception indeed has echoes of C. P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’. It still finds its way into the assessment of the academic CV and sometimes grant applications.

But beyond that is the deeper issue of the perception and reality of conflicts of interest. This issue has been most acutely studied in the medical sciences, but it is generic. At the same time that stakeholders expect researchers to be more engaged with the private sector, there is a growing concern about bias and perceptions of bias that might be associated with such sponsorship and interactions. Most journals now properly demand a conflict of interest statement.

The issue is how academic-commercial associations can be used and misused. There have been occasions where journals have refused contributions because of an author’s associations. This is not a trivial matter, because if this practice was generalised beyond extreme circumstances, it would create impossible tension for all parties. This would be problematic, in part because there are many areas of science where the private sector has taken a lead.

There is an irony in all of this. Academia is generally rather good at dealing with private sector interests (as long as they are declared); it is much less accomplished at dealing with its own internal conflicts. All said and done, the modern research model has a high level of internal competition. Stories of biased reviews of grants and papers are common and indeed are part of nearly every scientist’s war stories, in both big and small countries.

Clearly much is changing in the interplay among science, society and the private sector in particular. As we seek greater permeability between publicly funded science and the private sector, issues are arising which will cause tensions. But the academic community also needs to be honest in dealing with its own internal conflicts.

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