Read our COVID-19 research and news.

All together now. Universities that get involved in applied research partnerships with industry, such as companies that extract oil from mines like this one in Alberta, need to make sure agreements protect academic freedom, a new report argues.

All together now. Universities that get involved in applied research partnerships with industry, such as companies that extract oil from mines like this one in Alberta, need to make sure agreements protect academic freedom, a new report a


In Canada, a Stern Critique of University-Industry Collaborations

Canadian universities aren’t doing enough to protect academic freedom and safeguard against conflicts of interest in research agreements with industry, argues a new report from an academic association. But the leader of one applied research collaboration says the findings are misguided.

“In their drive to attract new revenues by collaborating with corporations, donors, and governments, Canadian universities are entering into agreements that … sacrifice fundamental academic principles,” the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) concluded, according to a press release, in the report released last week, which examined a dozen university-industry agreements. Many, it found, failed to protect researchers’ ability to publish freely, while just one spelled out rules for disclosing conflicts of interest.

CAUT’s conclusion, however, is “complete and utter nonsense,” says Murray Gray, scientific director of the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, one of the partnerships analyzed in the report. “Their premise is that academic freedom [means] that you should be paid as a professor to do work that what you want to do, without any accountability, that you should be given money and just go and have a good time.”

The CAUT study, titled Open for Business: On What Terms?, is a follow-on to Big Oil Goes to College, a similar analysis of 10 university-industry pacts in the United States conducted by the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. In Canada, CAUT evaluated how well the agreements it studied complied with the group’s Guiding Principles for University Collaborations, which it developed in 2012 in conjunction with the American Association of University Professors.

Initially, CAUT had hoped to analyze 20 agreements obtained through freedom of information requests and other channels. The group was able to obtain just 12 pacts that had not had key details removed, however. They included seven collaborations focused on research on energy, aerospace technology, and biomedical science, as well as five “programs” that emphasized teaching collaborations on global policy and other issues.

“In only half of the collaboration agreements did the universities ensure that they retained control of all academic matters affecting their students and faculty,” the authors found. Five provided for unrestricted publication rights, but seven provided “no specific protection for academic freedom.” Just one required disclosure of institutional or individual conflicts of interest.

In general, the program agreements hewed more closely to CAUT’s Guiding Principles, the authors concluded. As for the seven research collaborations, only one provided for the selection of projects through peer review, while three had a defined process and criteria by which faculty could apply for funding. Two of the seven agreements guaranteed researchers access to all of the data and findings generated by the partnership.

Such results are “staggering,” says CAUT Executive Director James Turk, who says he was particularly worried by “the number of agreements that make no reference to academic freedom.” The study points to the need to implement more comprehensive standards for such agreements, he tells ScienceInsider. Although Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has guidelines for industrial partnerships, he adds, they are often vague and largely unenforced.

CAUT’s criticisms are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of applied research, says Gray, a chemical engineer and vice provost at the University of Alberta. “They’re confusing independence of academic inquiry [with] independence of accountability [to the] people giving you money to do research, which is completely bizarre,” he tells ScienceInsider. In industry-sponsored research, “no one is telling the faculty members that they have to work on this and no one is hiring faculty members on the basis that they have to work on these projects.”

“The proposition that a company should give the university money to do applied research and then have the university do peer review and tell the company what the research should be, unilaterally, is bizarre,” Gray adds. “What they’re proposing is that the only mode for industry interaction should be outright donation.”

For its part, CAUT hopes the report will prompt universities to be more diligent when negotiating future collaborative agreements with industry.