Beware university reputations tarnished by business links

As the Facebook fiasco unfolds, one image sticks in my mind: that of the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre physically nestled inside the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. It calls itself a “strategic research network”, meaning it does research, but also sells its services to commercial companies. It has come to international attention because its studies informed the development of an app that passed data from Facebook to Cambridge Analytica. The case highlights worryingly blurred boundaries between business and academic research.

Collaborations between academia and corporations are nothing new, but they used to be less complicated. In the 1990s and early 2000s, energy focused on boosting the tech transfer: how to ensure that the ingenious discoveries of academic researchers could be commercialised, with both the university and the researcher receiving some reward. Protecting intellectual property was paramount. Expectations of revenue, originally rather modest, rose in the UK, where there was a pervasive feeling of lagging behind the global competition.

Since then, pressure has built on higher education to secure ever more attention-grabbing research: that’s how they receive funding and it is how they improve in the rankings to attract students and staff.

Individual academics face similar stresses. To survive and progress, researchers need to publish, and to choose topics amenable to plentiful citations and media headlines. These days, it can also help to study hip topics favoured by students, who give them scores on websites such as — in the UK, student feedback is a high stakes business, and affects an institution’s official teaching quality rating. If they want to earn anything beyond their salary, popular topics result in invitations to appear on the fee-paying speaking circuit.

But researchers must also gain access to companies who will find a market for their work. So the universities and academics have the need; companies offer them data, glitz and money. To ignore this imbalance of power, and the problems it gives rise to, is wilful blindness.

The University of Cambridge may have been dragged into the current embarrassing imbroglio through naivety about what some academics were up to, but the story reflects the skewed incentives that now beleaguer research. Having coined the term, academics find themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of the “auditor problem”: the psychological difficulty of remaining objective and critical when spending large amounts of time with clients on whom you depend for income.

In the life sciences, we have been here before, when Big Tobacco proved so successful at co-opting academic science that, 20 years ago, it was banned from all forms of co-operation. We have also seen the havoc wreaked when pharmaceutical companies sought to buy academic credibility.

Business benefits from unblemished academic rigour. The social sciences, under fire for influential studies that cannot be replicated, would benefit from real-world testing. The mutual benefit of clear guidance in these relationships is clear. Universities do have policies designed to enforce rigour and integrity. But open debate and serious scrutiny around incentives for research is lacking. And the life sciences offer lessons beyond the reputational disaster scenarios.

In clinical drug trials, the Medical Research Council requires that results data be made available after a period of six months. This ensures that negative data does not get buried. A similar guideline could offer some protection to social science or business researchers who turn up results that are uncomfortable for companies or sectors. It cannot entirely counteract the auditor effect, but might mitigate against flattery. This could prove a good test of corporations’ commitment to objectivity.

Due diligence into the reputational risk posed by corporate partnerships must become rigorous enough to withstand the allure of publicity and funding. Ethics committees must interrogate the research topic more deeply. They need insight into, and solid definition around, how the analysis will be used and by whom — tricky in a world where algorithms are trade secrets. The ethical issues implicit in social science and technology projects must be explored, debated and incorporated into policy.

All of these concerns are a great deal more subtle than past collaborations. Star academics now found their own businesses, hoping to cash in on their research. Universities host companies they hope will add lustre and attract funding. Conflicts of interest are rife and transparency is patchy at best.

Universities and corporations find themselves at an important moment, when the integrity and legitimacy of both are being questioned. Who are they for, whom do they serve and, most importantly, how do they complement each other and contribute to society as a whole? This is exactly the debate that universities should seek not to follow but to lead.

The writer is the author of ‘Wilful Blindness’ and ‘A Bigger Prize’