Tempting Science

Scientists everywhere are increasingly uneasy at the rising influence of business upon university research. They realize that direct financial connections with the private sector can damage their reputation for independence and integrity. Nevertheless, the traditional doors separating academia from industry are being quietly dismantled - sometimes even smashed down. Specious free-market doctrines are devaluing the public services that those doors protected, not least the free flow of well-informed, critical speech that is vital to open inquiry.

Of course every scientist wants more money to do research; and every nation needs as much good science as it can get. But good science is expensive: so if some perfectly reputable company is prepared to pay for it, why be choosy?

Industrial research is an immense asset to society, not least in advancing scientific knowledge. But commercial firms are not philanthropies. They are under constant competitive pressures; shareholders expect a return on their investment. Even when not trying to buy exclusive access to profitable new discoveries, they are always in the market for preferential consideration. Valuable gifts may appear to purchase intangible favours. Cash for scientific answers is not as obviously corrupt as cash for parliamentary questions, but smells as nasty.

So far, there have been few open scandals. Scientists in both academia and industry can still be trusted to do their work with honesty. In most fields of university research, direct external influences - military and political as well as commercial - are trivial. But a number of worrying cases of falsification or fabrication can be traced back to direct pressures from funding sources. In some disciplines it is becoming difficult to find academic scientists who are not in some way dependent on corporate support.