Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buying and Selling Constraints on Academic Freedom and Integrity: The Case of BP

I just finished reading the short opinion article, "BP and Academic Freedom," published a few days ago in Inside Higher Ed. While the article has nothing directly to do with philosophy of religion (and while I'm pretty sure BP won't be knocking on my door offering me an opportunity to sell my academic soul in exchange for gobs of money), it chilled me enough that I wanted to share it here.

In brief, the article notes a recent trend on the part of BP to seek out researchers who are doing or may do work related to the oil spew in the Gulf of Mexico, and to offer them lucrative contracts--in exchange for agreeing to relinquish control of research findings and their dissemination to BP. As Cary Nelson, the author of the article, puts it:

...the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company’s behalf. Several faculty members in the area have confirmed to the American Association of University Professors that they have been offered contracts by BP in exchange for restrictive confidentiality clauses. A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP’s lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege.
Contracts of this sort directly violate AAUP standards for corporate funding of research, which hold that no contract should restrict the free and open dissemination of research findings. Nevertheless, there are some who might say that no one is strong-arming researchers into accepting such contracts, and that if they choose to accept them they have voluntarily agreed to the contract's terms. As such, the contract terms do not violate Academic Freedom.

Is this right? I think not. Academic researchers are under enormous pressures to secure corporate funding for their research. Often, their careers depend upon it. More often than that, their ability to do the kind of research they want to do depends on it (because other forms of funding are limited). If corporations are free to put restrictive clauses into research contracts, the ultimate effect may be that the careers of university researchers will depend on those researchers giving away their academic freedom. That is, they will be forced to choose between not having jobs or the resources to do their research, and having those jobs and resources but lacking the freedom to share their findings in the environment of open and unbiased communication essential for effective science.

To avoid this outcome, the scientific community and universities must make it clear to corporations that they are not free to put such restrictive clauses into research contracts. Were universities in general to adopt clear policies prohibiting faculty from entering into such contracts, corporations that wanted to impose these kinds of restrictions would thereby be denied access to the intellectual resources universities can provide. This would likely be the most effective way to ensure that research moneys do not come with strings (and chains, and gags) attached. In this case as in others, policies that put constraints on what people can agree to actually serve the function of protecting freedom. They do so by ensuring that people don't find themselves with no real alternative but to accept a restrictive agreement.


  1. I entirely agree. A related question concerns the patenting of “intellectual property”. Should we be able to patent (genetically modified or other) life forms? Mathematical or computer algorithms? In general, any form of knowledge? I fear we will see more and more of this.

  2. JP--It gets even worse. A friend of mine, David Koepsell, recently wrote a scathing book-length critique of the corporate efforts to own patents on sequenced chunks of the human genome--not the mechanisms of decoding or identifying specific sequences, but the "genes" themselves. That is, corporations are claiming ownership of our genes.

  3. Yes. While all of us here are having our friendly disagreements, corporations are scheming to find ways to own our bodies. Not forgetting the terrible injustices all over the world, the always faster depletion of earth resources and an out of control climate. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it?