“Let the corporate donations come, but not to fund donors' commercial research”
BY JOHN MCMURTRY
Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a talk given by University professor emeritus elect John McMurtry, FRSC, of the Department of Philosophy when he introduced a recent lecture on campus by Dr. Nancy Olivieri.
Let us begin by getting bearings on the meaning of education and research, which is so widely ignored in our commercial culture. There are two anchoring principles.
1. Education consists of the learning of capabilities to think independently, literately and constructively in evolved codes of human understanding that academic disciplines bear.
2. Research is the leading edge of these disciplines and of new human understanding.
Business leaders and university administrations may say they agree with these defining criteria, yet over the last two decades, an unspoken corporate agenda has inverted these defining objectives towards the undebated purpose of “global market competitiveness and productivity.” Neo-liberal federal and provincial government policies have led this “structural adjustment,” with senior university administrations in energetic tow.
Few people notice that this “competitiveness” is not for better or more universal education or discovery. It is to competitively increase private stockholders' money returns. Fewer still notice that “higher productivity” means only increasing corporate revenues over costs — for example, by the development of biotech commodities. Increasing corporate revenues over costs is now the dominant selector for medical and so-called “life science” research, and why Dr. Nancy Olivieri was prohibited from informing patients in a clinical trial of her concerns about an experimental drug.
On the most general plane, the system-wide trends to subjugate public education and research are:
Across all public sectors, there is one unifying pattern — to reduce the social life functions of government to corporate-market service functions. At the University of Guelph, for example, our agricultural and veterinary sciences and facilities have been redirected since the late 1980s to massive animal experimentation and factory-farm methods to serve corporate agribusiness instead of family farms and balanced rural development. Ontario family farms and agricultural and rural programs have been correspondingly bankrupted and defunded in the process. At the most general level, funding for non-profit science in the public interest — once the standard of objective research in universities — has been subverted. This dumb-down pattern crosses university campuses.
The degradation of the higher-learning mission is part of a much wider social-structural shift in which corporately financed and media-supported government parties have extensively stripped the public economy by:
University administrations have collaborated on the rationale that funds must be found. Yet the underlying conflict of interest is not seen. In “university-corporation partnerships,” university researchers must find projects that big business is willing to co-fund. This means that what corporations find no profit in — for example, preventive medicines for Third World malaria, which kills millions annually, or exercise-diet routines to prevent epidemic diseases — aren't funded.
Within government, the conflict of interest is more blatant. Pharmaceutical corporations fund 75 per cent of Health Canada's drug-approval process, and scientists who find hazards with new drugs have — like Olivieri — been fired for identifying them.
The problem is quite soluble. No private research money should be involved in any public or university research where there is any conflict of interest. Let the corporate donations come, but not to fund donors' commercial research. Otherwise, there is no research integrity left in the process.
A World Bank paper has even declared that worldwide education reform demands a more radical market restructuring in which educational decision-making must shift from faculty and from “inappropriate curricula.”
In step with the global agenda, the monthly business magazine of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has announced “the $2-trillion global education market,” which it approvingly affirmed as “an academic gold rush.”
This is the mentality universities are “partnering” with. “Administrative leadership” is much prized in management literature, but there has been none here. An official booklet on the research-market connection, The Canadian Agri-Food Research Strategy, 1997-2002, stated (emphases added): “Increasing competition for research funding . . .will demand that Canada identifies its research strengths and capabilities to focus on those areas with highest value and return on investment . . . . Priorities for applied research are set by the marketplace via partnerships, e.g., industry funds research that fits their priorities . . . . Augmented private-sector participation in research priority setting will . . . ensure scientists have access to the appropriate market signals, are aware of the technology requirements of industry, and can focus their research appropriately.” Our University research office willingly distributed this prescription for research funds.
Prof. Ann Clark of the Department of Plant Agriculture has bravely warned of the distortion of research at U of G with such a for-profit bias. In a paper to the October 1999 Conference of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in Ottawa, she wrote: “Non-proprietary research — of the sort that benefits everyone — is of no interest to industry sponsors.” In agriculture, for example, integrated pest management, organic farming, management-intensive grazing, small-scale producer co-operatives, and alternatives to factory-processed livestock and genetically engineered commodities have been isolated and given little or no research support.
In general at the university level, administrators in areas whose research can be commercialized for biotech commodities such as pharmaceutical and GMO products have been prone to attack faculty researchers who publicly question such research on precautionary grounds. On the wider government plane, the incoming federal administration of 2004 campaigned on the “tripling of the commercialization of university research,” which Paul Martin proclaimed, as he became prime minister, was “not nearly fast enough.”
Corporate marketization of the university proceeds on many levels — ever more expenditures on administrative positions and management-decided chairs and special projects as funding cutbacks on university courses and teaching are demanded. Lecture halls and walls are insidiously made into corporate brand-promotion sites. At the same time, academic resources are downgraded by part-time sessionals and limited contracts in place of full-time professors (60 per cent of the teaching at York University) and — in the professorial ranks themselves — careerist grant-chasing by faculty in place of original depth research.
In overview approval of this corporate barbarization of higher education and research, global management guru Peter Drucker has opined: “Thirty years from now, university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive.”
The Contradiction of Values
Corporate marketization of the academy undermines it from within. The first contradiction is between the academy's purpose of critical search for truth and the corporate market's final goal of financial self-maximization. Good reasoning and research in education require educators and researchers to address problems independently of their money payoff, whereas market competitiveness is bound by corporate fiduciary duty to maximize money returns to stockholders.
The second contradiction of regulating values is between the free and open dissemination of knowledge and the private patent and copyright control of all knowledge that corporations can copyright or patent. This explains why endless animal-experiment protocols are kept secret at our university.
The hidden war of values also reaches into our very identities as persons. The development of abilities of autonomous thought and action is education. Consumption of ready-made commodities, often junk, is the corporate market. The university should stand and fight for education, not corporate marketization of itself.
The final contradiction is the most lethal. The university is constitutionally committed to critically reasoned inquiry that goes wherever the quest for truth leads it, whereas corporations succeed by one-sided conditioning of unconscious desires of buyers so as to maximize sales of products. The truth is only what sells. That a “knowledge economy” can now be declared across universities and the world with no criterion of knowledge to distinguish it from falsehood reveals the cognitive disorder of our condition.
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