It seems that if you are a researcher based in industry these days, you are in a tricky space. You may have spent a career contributing to research that you may have believed to be valuable, but that may not be how others see you?
Having transversed from academia to industry (7 years), to academia (15 years) and back to industry (going on 2 years), I can see the benefits and limits of being a researcher in academia and industry from both sides. What I think is disappointing, is the closing down of conversations that I’ve experienced recently. That isn’t just disappointing; I think it is worrying from the perspectives of having a good old fashioned healthy debate.
But industry is biased!
I completely understand that published articles that are sponsored by industry are problematic – and have concluded such in a poster recently the need for more non-commercial research in some areas for a more balanced evaluation of available evidence. The pharmaceutical industry has withheld important results in the past with actions that are morally questionable. Publication bias from commercially-sponsored research is higher than that funded by other means.
I’d would add that publishing is problematic full stop. Journal editorial boards have favoured the publishing of positive results for far too long, and I once myself tried to publish negative findings on the use of fish oils on inflammatory bowel disease, and had a paper regarded ‘not novel’ enough. Two years of postdoctoral research was unpublishable.
Authors declare conflicts of interest which helps readers weigh-up the limitations and potential biases of any paper, although I also know of academic researchers on systematic reviews who have not fully declared their funding origins on published articles. The system is a mess.
To dismiss all industrial research as biased and unworthy is a worry; we would encourage our students to be healthily critical and weigh up the evidence before them, not dismiss all research outputs at point blank range.
So why are industrial partnerships encouraged?
Most governments encourage university – industry partnerships. The UKRI benefits from co-investment from industry, and along with other philanthropic and charity partners; this totalled around £500 million in 2019 for universities. I don’t see universities turning the money away because it was unscrupulously derived from company profits. A university nearby to me didn’t think twice at trying to hose an event for military arms dealers on their campus.
The value of these partnerships of course is in the sharing of expertise, resources and providing university students with career-enhancing and enriching opportunities. The Office for Students in 2018 endorsed the need to “encourage even greater collaboration between universities and business” … for the benefit of student employability.
How about academic bias?
While I’m here, and having worked in public and private sector, I would suggest academia is not perfect either. Academics are pressured by the system to aim for high impact journals and anser the question “are you REF-able” at interviews, and the professional reward structures perpetuate this. Many have argued the system is not fit for purpose. I’ve also seen it written that the net societal impact of university research funding and the advancements to humanity are much slower than one would expect.
Let’s not go into retractions, plagiarism and the fact that a great chunk of research in some academic subjects is not reproducible anyway.
So I’m not having a go – I’m just saying that academic research structures aren’t perfect either and does not command the moral high ground.
What to do about research?
- Joober in 2012 writes about a system that needs to change with more journals encouraging negative results and:
“Divorcing the publication process from all financial constraints (and hence the tyranny of the impact factor) would go a long way to help negative findings emerge from the dark recesses of researchers’ data books into the light of publication”.
2. Let’s cut the crap! Let’s cut the quantity of scientific publications. I spend a vast proportion of my life writing systematic reviews, and a recent one has identified duplicate reviews in many areas that were practically identical to each other. Journal editors and review panels need to be far more scrutinizing. Detatching research outputs from league tables is greatly over-due.
3. Open science. There are some great initiatives these days encouraging the sharing of protocols for systematic reviews #Prospero; #ALLTRIALS encouraging the publishing of all clinical trial data; #OPENSCIENCE and #OPENDATA initiatives encouraging the sharing of data and research workings.
I would stick my neck out and say again this needs to be policy-driven and mandatory for all research. Open access publishing should not just viewed as another hurdle that academics have to jump through to be REF-able (in the UK).
As an researcher from within industry, I don’t have to comply with any of this, but me and my company choose to do so. We share data openly on #Figshare, I contribute to open reviewing, I can’t afford Gold open access publishing routes, but fully encourage university partners to share pre-prints via their repositories.
We are all in it together, aren’t we?
I might have been your last academic collegue. I might be your next one (you are in for a treat). I know so many people who move between academia and industry, and from an educational perspective this is a huge asset to learning and teaching. It seems disingenuous to quarantine researchers whilst they are in industry and invite them to give their souls just because they join academia.
Most researchers I know – wherever they are situated – are driven by the passion for what they do, by wanting to achieve their best, and for the most part, wanting to share their knowledge with others, which includes supporting enthusiastic learners.
Aren’t we facing some quite big global problems?
The world is approaching crises – whether we are discussing the peril of our natural environment, antibiotic resistance, or the unsustainable nature of our food sources. I was at a recent conference where a panel were discussing “planetary health” and the need to bring multidisciplinary teams of biologists, nutritionists, ecologists and agriculturalists together. In the next breath it was argued that they didn’t want to involve industry. We did not have the right business models. The speaker clearly did not have any understanding of the nature of many businesses today, for example, the growing number of B Corps that balance business and profit (over 3000 companies across 64 countries, and growing). The Guardian joined them last week.
It seemed ironic that in most of the university courses that I’ve taught on – nursing, healthcare science – we used to drum home and have entire modules on interdisciplinary working, and the need to work together across boundaries. Build onto that, the need for diversity in decision making. I was surprised at this event to have the doors shut to me regarding conversations about nutrition and people’s health by people who will be teaching classrooms of students next week.
“Open your hearts and open your minds” said the wonderful poet Lemn Sissay. Let’s understand each other’s differences. I’ve seen before the dangers of closing down conversations before they have begun. You might just find people from different sectors with similar values and hopes.
After all it is said:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.