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Howard's End: Academia Muzzled By Commerce

Forcing universities to go cap in hand to industry and wealthy individuals for money is preventing academics from sharing research and speaking out, a new Australian report reveals. Academics are being muzzled by commerce, John Howard writes.

The chances that many of the major 'public good' scientific break-throughs of yesteryear would see the light of day in today's world is remote.

A survey by the Canberra-based Australia Institute, has found that more than half the academics in a nation-wide poll, believe that growing dependence on private sector money prevents them from criticising the organisations on which their university depends. While one in three said they were prevented from sharing their ideas with colleagues because of commercial-in-confidence agreements - a major contributor to low staff morale.

The executive director of the Institute, Dr Clive Hamilton, said changes to research funding methods had forced many academics to stick to safe subjects, with 17 percent of those surveyed saying they had not been allowed to publish contentious results.

Since 1996 the Australian Federal Government has forced universities to "develop market-based revenues" to make up the gap between grants and university expenditure with government grants being held at their 1996 level, the report said.

Preoccupation with the 'bottom line' in universities is to the detriment of the proper pursuit of knowledge when the ability to challenge accepted dogmas and engage in wild scientific imaginings is inhibited.

Commercialisation of universities has many adverse effects including pressure to attract research funding from industry and an emphasis on fee-based courses which benefit disciplines which are vocational rather than speculative or critical.

One respondent to the survey wrote, "Research is increasingly defined in terms of bringing in money and 'friend raising' in the wider community - which often means tailoring research projects and fundings to flatter the funders/friends."

This report is serious for New Zealand as well, because if there is ever to be significant break-throughs for some of society's ailments the profit motive and hence the type of research funded, has got to be removed.

For example, I find it a major scandal that after 50 years of research and spending billions of dollars, we are still no closer to finding a cure for cancer and, what's more, I am more than satisfied that, of necessity, researchers have only been looking in directions which will generate drugs and, therefore, profit for somebody.

Unless there is a profit at the end, the system of private sector research funding rewards the sycophant and punishes the visionary to a degree unparalleled in the four hundred-year history of modern science.

In other words, scientific censorship which has come about because research is now so expensive that only governments or large corporations can pay for it.

If a challenge to accepted dogma is not funded by a company for profit, or a government cuts back on public good research, then people will continue to die and many of society's ailments will never be solved - unless there's a profit for someone.

Imagine if Marie Curie, Ignaz Semmelweis, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur and many others, were reliant on funding from private companies as they initially started on their research which ultimately led to some of the world's major 'public good' break-throughs.

There was no profit for them or anybody else with their initial research yet they were able to persist in the public interest, often against overwhelming odds, with the urge to test a hunch with their intuitive 'lunatic twinge' - the source of all scientific advances.

You’ve probably never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor, who practiced in Vienna during the mid-nineteenth century. After labourious research which could never generate a profit for anyone, he demanded that his hospital professors and colleagues wash their hands, especially when moving from autopsies and sick wards to the charity childbirth ward he directed.

When cases of puerperal fever and resultant death declined dramatically in the childbirth ward he proved the importance of cleanliness and bacterial infection even before Pasteur. Many women and children of that era owe their lives to him. Yet he was sacked and vilified because he dared to challenge the accepted medical dogma. His livelihood gone, he committed suicide soon after.

This was a great man who challenged the orthodoxies and conducted his 'public good' research with no profit motive by playing a hunch. He was able to do it because he was not locked into process, but simply wanted results. I don't think he could do that today.

In a recent column I wrote about the brake fern which is able to eat-up toxic arsenic in landfills. The only responses I got to that column was from overseas - none from New Zealand. You see, there is no profit for anyone in this because it's public good science.

If I told you there are sunflowers which capture uranium, alpine herbs that hoard zinc, mustards that lap up lead, clovers which eat oil, and poplar trees that destroy dry-cleaning solvents, would you think, because of the toxic substances problem in our landfills, that someone in government might be interested?

In fact, poplar trees are such effective sieves for harmful chemicals that a stand of poplars is a self-assembling solar powered pump-and-treat system.

We need to encourage people of all ages to enter the science disciplines and who will see themselves as more than just employees. We need people who are contaminated by the benign virus of adventure and discovery, who are motivated, who chase an ideal. Importantly, we must allow them, and provide a place for them, to do it.

To that end, we need more leadership in the scientific and political arena.

Will New Zealand wake-up to the problems before more of our brightest minds seek greener pastures elsewhere? Or will we continue to be a second-rate country dominated by process rather than results?


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