Corporate-backed research is ‘surprisingly valuable’

A new study shows the benefits of corporate engagement


Private corporate investment in academic research has more of an impact and produces more downstream gains than state investment, according to research from the US. And contrary to the perceptions of some, it also found that corporate involvement does not necessarily take away academic freedoms or channel researchers into narrowly defined paths.

The normal mantra from academia goes as follows: “We need more state money, state money will support basic research and open access to results. Corporates will take over the conduct of research and will exclude others from access to data.” Brian Wright and colleagues from University of California, Berkeley would beg to differ, however.

Realising there was very little hard information about the traditional academic assumptions, they decided to conduct a study looking at the nine University of California campuses and three national laboratories under its control. They scanned back over 20 years of data including 12,500 inventions and came up with unexpected results, published in the journal Nature on March 20th.

The prevailing wisdom holds that corporate engagement with academia would produce work that was less useful and would be less accessible to other researchers, but Wright’s study provided evidence for the reverse. “Our analysis suggests that corporate sponsored research is surprisingly valuable for further innovation.” Corporate-sponsored interventions are licensed and cited more often than federally sponsored ones. The universities did not become corporate vassals through their use of company money.

Looking at the university’s inventions overall, 20 per cent were linked to at least one licence and almost 25 per cent were eventually patented. For those inventions where the money came from internal sources along with government support the figures were much lower, 13 per cent delivering licences and 17 per cent patents. Turning to corporate-supported inventions, 29 per cent delivered licences and 35 per cent resulted in patents and looking at inventions specifically funded by the US government 22 per cent delivered licences and 26 per cent raised patents.

Another concern about corporate involvement relates to the exclusivity demanded for first access to licences. It is a simple matter of being able to call the tune once you have paid the piper. The corporates looked for exclusivity in 78 per cent of licences but the US-funded National Institutes of Health were level pegging with 79 per cent of licences exclusive to it. Surprisingly, however, the researchers found that half of the exclusive licences for corporate-sponsored inventions actually went to third parties and not the original corporate. The corporate was not there demanding exclusivity over all the inventions made.

Another surprise was that corporate-sponsored inventions spur more “knowledge spillovers” on average than government-sponsored research, this based on forward citation rates, the authors write. These forward citations are an indication of the impact of research findings and therefore the quality and value of a patent. The authors found that each corporate- backed invention produced on average 12.8 forward citations if licensed to a third party and even more if licensed by the sponsor. This compared with 5.6 for US government-backed inventions. This cuts across the notion that the companies are only involved in narrowly focused applications important only to themselves.

The high citation rates point towards the view that the firms are supporting exploratory research, the authors argue. “Acquiring intellectual property is not necessarily the prime focus of corporate sponsors. Companies also value sustained relationships with leading scientists and associated opportunities to identify and recruit talented employees,” they say.

Wright did not try to argue around the reality that some corporates will attempt to take control. Tobacco, food, pharma and other industries from time to time have attempted to manipulate research questions and control public discourse for their own benefit and have even suppressed unfavourable research. The authors also acknowledge that the data they base their conclusions on comes from University of California campuses only and so they can’t speak for how things are at other universities.

How do these findings map onto the Irish situation? The Science Foundation Ireland research centres were set up with the requirement that there be considerable involvement by industrial partners and that these partners bear a large fraction of the running costs of these centres. The assumption was that having corporate engagement with the research effort would make it more relevant to the marketplace although this was not meant to preclude blue skies research.

If corporate involvement with academic research here produces the kind of results seen at the University of California then we should benefit from company involvement in our research centres. It will fall to the academics in these institutions to ensure that a mutually beneficial balance is reached between academic freedom to conduct research and the interests of the corporates which relate to successful business activity that results in reasonable profits.

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