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Research at the U: How Close is Too Close?
By Bill Catlin, February 2001
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The University of Minnesota has been under pressure to serve as an engine for Minnesota's economy - an idea factory that will generate new high-tech products, industries and jobs. University officials are eager to show they're building stronger connections to business and industry and are working harder to commercialize innovations born at the U. But these efforts occur amid a raging national debate on whether academia and industry are getting too close.

Entrepreneurs and academics gather at the Carlson School of Management building.

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THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA has often been criticized as remote and unresponsive to the needs of Minnesota industry. But that may be changing, as the U tries to borrow from the playbooks of institutions like M.I.T. and the University of Texas at Austin - major research universities credited with fueling thriving high-tech regional economies.

A gathering in January 2001 on the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus was a joint effort between the U and the Collaborative, an entrepreneur support organization, to bring the business community and the university together. University Vice President for Research Christine Maziar told the gathering that it's increasingly important at the university to move innovations from the lab to the marketplace.

"You will be happy to know, especially those of you in the business community, that this kind of activity is increasingly earning respect on campus," she said.

As if to prove Maziar's point, College of Pharmacy professor Robert Cipolle, seated near the back, brimmed with enthusiasm by the end of the evening's discussion. He and his colleagues have developed a computerized system that he says will help physicians and pharmacists manage patient medications more safely.

"I'm trying to learn what it requires to get this sort of interesting technology outside of the walls of the university and into the marketplace and the health care industry. I learned a lot from this seminar. The business plan has a series of questions that you have to answer in a very explicit fashion. I'm excited. I'm going to go home and make a pot of coffee and start writing it," Cipolle said.

The U has hired more staff to work on technology-transfer agreements, and to work with companies sponsoring research. Corporate dollars represent about 10 percent of the U's research spending, and officials want that to grow. Nationally, corporate dollars are the fastest growing component of academic-research spending, but remain a small fraction. Even so, the extent of university-industrial relations is a source of growing controversy in Minnesota and beyond, particularly in the realm of biotechnology. (See a series of charts on U funding and research ranking)

In early February 2001, protesters huddled in frigid weather near a boom box pumping out an anti-biotech song, then went on to disrupt a university conference on genetically-modified organisms.

Some biotechnology opponents, like student Jessica Patridge, also object to what they say is increasing corporate control of the university.

"What happens when you have corporate donations is corporations are directing what research goes on here. If we're not getting across-the-board funding from the Legislature, corporations are going to donate to certain departments, and those are the departments that are going to get money, those are the departments that are going to succeed while other departments decline," said Patridge.

Protesters disrupt a University of Minnesota conference on governing genetically-modified organisms, February 1, 2001.

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Cargill's $10 million gift to the U for a microbial and plant genomics building is a high-profile target for critics alleging the U is bowing to corporate influence.

Speaking after a groundbreaking for the building in early February, Cargill Senior Vice President Robbin Johnson said both organizations are sensitive to the issue.

"The university officials and Cargill were both concerned about that impression and were very explicit in making the grant and the university in accepting it, that it's a grant without strings attached. So I think in this case, I don't see a conflict of interest," Johnson said.

Even so, university President Mark Yudof agrees there is a risk that pressures from donors or to promote economic development can throw academic priorities out of joint.

"I don't think we're out of balance and I think we're trying to be very careful about that. I think some universities, without naming them, have made some mistakes in terms of giving up too much of their public purpose. I do think there's a danger. I do think the University of Minnesota is really very far from that," Yudof says.

Corporate funding is also prompting debate about research integrity. The prestigious international journal Nature recently published an editorial asking whether the university-industrial complex is out of control. While noting corporate relationships can bring many benefits to universities, the journal said the downside is increasingly clear, including evidence of biased research and undisclosed conflicts of interest.

Speaking from London, Nature Editor in Chief Philip Campbell says the stakes include public perception of university scientists as independent voices in the debate over controversial technologies.

"There is a risk that in some perhaps very prestigious universities, if action isn't taken about transparency, about the proper balance of funding, then some of the precious independence that these institutions have could be lost," said Campbell.

The Nature editorial cites one of the most controversial arrangements, a five-year $25 million deal between the University of California, Berkeley and the giant Swiss pharmaceutical and agricultural firm Novartis. The deal has raised concerns about preferential access. The company gained seats on the committee picking research projects, and has first dibs on some research results, even if paid for with public dollars.

At the University of Minnesota, some faculty members complain about excessive corporate influence. Others say the university is doing better than Berkeley, but worry about the trends.

1980: Bayh-Dole Act allows universities to patent and commercialize technologies developed through federally funded research.

1999: University of Minnesota receives $10 million from Cargill for microbial and plant genomics building.

2000: Governor Jesse Ventura says "a healthy University of Minnesota contributes to a healthy Minnesota economy": Summit on Minnesota's Economy convenes.

2001: The journal Nature says links between academia and industry are of increasing concern to academics and to society at large.

"I see more red flags popping up," warns Anne Kapuscinski, a University of Minnesota expert on ecological risk assessment and genetically-modified organisms. She says she and another researcher wanted a sample of a company's genetically engineered organism to research possible risks her colleague had identified.

Kapuscinski won't name the firm. But she says company officials wanted her colleague to issue a statement saying the potential risks reported earlier did not relate to their organism. Kapuscinski says that was unacceptable.

"We were uncomfortable with being put in a situation where even raising the question and even raising the hypothesis was viewed as a bad thing. We feel like it's our responsibility and in terms of academic freedom, it's our right to pursue those questions," Kapuscinski says.

Amid intense competition for public research dollars, Kapuscinski says she understands the need for industry funding, but she worries corporate relationships can influence the questions researchers pursue.

University Vice President for Research Christine Maziar says it's critically important that faculty members are free to define and pursue their own research agenda.

Three Stages of University-Industrial Relations
University of Minnesota Higher Education associate professor Melissa Anderson, says the history of university-industrial relationships falls into 3 stages. Listen.

She also says the U has a robust conflict-of-interest policy to safeguard the integrity of research, and an extensive training program to ensure the faculty follows the policy.

Higher Education professor Melissa Anderson says it's easy to exaggerate both the perils and benefits of university relationships with industry, but she also says connections between corporations and academics are becoming more pervasive.

"As we enter into more and more ways of universities and corporations to be involved with each other, it's just really important for us to maintain a watchful eye on the consequences of those relationships for the broader mission of the university," says Anderson.

Many observers say what's at stake is public trust in an institution's scientists and research.

Bill Catlin covers business issues for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at