The Truth Behind University–Industry Collaborations
For academics, industry partnerships do not corrupt or compromise the science. They strengthen it
By Joseph Jez, November 12, 2016
In science, as in life, every good story needs conflict. Take, for example, the struggle between faceless corporations or corrupt scientists and the lone champion whose mission it is to bring their shady dealings to light. This storyline is a staple of movies and television shows (and many times social media and Web sites), and tends to paint academic and industry collaborations through a lens of conspiracy. It makes for great entertainment, but is that really what happens?
The lifeblood of science is collaboration. It feeds the free exchange of ideas, the testing of hypotheses, and, ultimately, new discoveries. The stereotype of the white-coated graduate student toiling away in isolation on some esoteric problem is largely a relic of the past. The complexity of research questions, along with the need for different perspectives and sophisticated experimental tools, is increasingly driving scientists to pool intellectual and physical resources. Those same forces are sparking more projects between universities and companies.
As a scientist, I have worked on both sides of the university-industry divide. At Kosan Biosciences, I worked with a structural biology laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, to reveal how a potential anti-cancer drug targeted a protein in the cellular quality-control machinery. Likewise, as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, I’ve led postdoctoral researchers and students (both graduate and undergraduate) in using biochemistry, plant biology, and structural biology to help corporations. Among our many projects, we worked with Divergence to help develop nematicides of potential agricultural, veterinary, and medical value; we worked with Clean Earth to help engineer plants that could act as environmental remediation tools; and we worked with Monsanto to explore the architecture of proteins that are putative food allergens. Rather than limiting our field of view, working with industry partners on real-world problems brought relevance and new perspectives to what we do in academic settings.
While the classic roles of universities as generators of knowledge and of businesses as appliers of that information still generally hold true, increased academic and industry collaboration has forged new relationships. Companies can provide research contracts for services; they can aid in the development of technologies; or they can support fundamental research in areas not considered a priority for governmental funding agencies. In some cases, entrepreneurial academic labs launch start-ups that commercialize their discoveries, either directly or through acquisition.
Alongside these new relationships come new challenges. Results may be proprietary or publishable, and universities need to maintain strict oversight over any relationship to avoid conflicts of interest and intellectual property. Nonetheless, collaborations are more like marriages of convenience than nefarious plots. They leverage the strengths of each partner to achieve success more quickly and effectively.
Crossing the university–industry divide has a positive impact not only on science, but also on scientists themselves. Imagine again that white-coated graduate student, traditionally prized for independence, creativity, technical skills, and scientific knowledge. Today, he or she may opt to work with a corporate R&D team—facing deadlines, communicating with people from different disciplines, and seeing, from the inside, how companies operate. In an age when academic positions are increasingly difficult to obtain, learning to translate between the languages of basic research and real-world application significantly enriches the training and marketability of young researchers.
Of course, there will always be examples of tainted research collaborations. The tobacco-funded health studies of the 1950s immediately come to mind, as do the recent revelations that the sugar industry influenced scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease. But those cases are exceptions, not rules. Academics are, for the most part, data-driven individuals who live and die by their reputations. Whether in universities, industry, or somewhere in between, researchers understand that shortcuts and ignoring information are counterproductive. They know that the scientific method operates to generate data that aim to disprove favorite ideas, to correct errors, and to open new avenues of inquiry. Collaborative university–industry projects might come with milestones and tough meetings that dissect progress, but they also come with scientific rigor and methodology. Anything less would be self-defeating.
Today, collaborations across the university–industry divide are a routine part of scientific research. They are often slow, methodical, and tedious arrangements punctuated with conflicts, differences of opinion, and the occasional discovery. Most of them would make for terrible television and even worse movies. That should bring great comfort to us all.
Joseph Jez is a professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis. He received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (2005), the Phytochemical Society of North America Arthur Neish Young Investigator Award (2007), and a Fulbright Senior Specialist Award (2012). Jez was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2014.
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