As soon as commercial interests get a
look in, you can kiss goodbye to academic freedom, insists
David Healy. Not so, says Robert
Jackson - the modern academy needs to reduce its reliance
on the State and embrace new partners.
The modern university and modern economics came into being at
much the same time, after a revolution in science in the 17th
century. In the university, this revolution allowed us to answer key
questions by bringing data to bear on the issues rather than by
appealing to authority or tradition. In economics, data also took on
a central role - the market in goods being replaced to a certain
extent by a market in data, spurred by government interest in
mapping populations to predict how much they could raise taxes.
These overlapping interests in data and data production have made
for fruitful interactions between industry and academia, most
notably in the years that followed the Second World War, when
academia was primarily publicly funded. Persuaded perhaps by this
success, and against a background of disappearing public funds, many
have regarded closer links between academia and industry as a
marriage made in heaven. Universities are tripping over themselves
in their haste to get down the aisle, where government bridesmaids
await, to pledge their troth to commercial partners who have checked
out the dowry. But this hasty marriage will leave academics
repenting at leisure.
There are fundamental incompatibilities between academic and
commercial markets. Academia has traditionally been an unfettered
market for data and ideas. There were, in principle, no restrictions
on access to data, and inconvenient facts were sought after rather
than excluded. Academic entrepreneurs entered new areas simply
because they were there, without undue consideration as to whether
any immediate monetary return on investment might justify their
efforts. The value of ideas was revised relentlessly so that today's
leading brands were all but certain to end up on tomorrow's
In contrast, today's commercial markets bear a greater
resemblance to a Soviet command economy. Data are cordoned off by
patent and copyright laws.
New evidence is not welcome. The only data sought are those that
suit the interests of the company. New markets remain undeveloped
unless marketing departments know what the return on an investment
is likely to be. To judge by recent biomedical scandals, such as
clinical trials involving the use of selective serotonin re-uptake
inhibitor antidepressants for children, the commercial market
tolerates, indeed appears to encourage, an almost complete mismatch
between what the data show and authoritative representations of what
they supposedly show. The science shows what the CEO says they show.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is likely to face a legal writ.
Where one might have expected academia to influence industry, on
the basis that the scientific way has been shown to produce a better
mousetrap than anything else humanity has devised, the influence
seems to be all the other way round. Universities are increasingly
likely to have corporate mission statements, with academics asked to
indicate how their research contributes to the goals of the
institution. Funding as a matter of policy is now linked to projects
that offer the promise of short-term gains, or is matched to funds
from industry in projects that almost never involve cutting-edge
In disciplines involving science with a commercial application,
the writing of scientific articles has been put on a new footing.
While the names of prominent academics continue to appear on the
most cited articles published in the highest impact factor journals,
these appearances are often ornamental rather than substantive; the
authors don't have access to the data, probably in many instances
never saw them and certainly cannot share them. The articles are
better written than before, appear in a timelier fashion, and tick
all quality control boxes, but their apparent authors are becoming
actors in the scientific field rather than its leaders.
It may not be obvious how much we have lost, as there are
continuing scientific developments but, in many cases, the basis for
the latest applications lies in breakthroughs made decades ago. We
are living off scientific capital accumulated in an earlier age. The
rate of novel drug development in the West is now far lower per
academic in the biomedical sciences than it was, for instance, in
Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain was lifted. The life
expectancy of Western patients with major diseases such as
schizophrenia is falling. New drugs are more likely to be for
cosmetic indications rather than agents that push forward the
frontiers of freedom by liberating us from the threat of disease.
In the short term, the new buildings on campus look great but,
behind the fascia, the academic furniture is rotting. Industry and
academia are not necessarily incompatible. When commerce embraces
the philosophy and discipline of the free market it might be
possible to reconsider links between the two - until then, everyone,
including industry, will lose if academia is bedded by commerce.
David Healy is professor of psychiatry, Cardiff
The phrase "academic freedom" has always struck me as a bit of a
puzzle, since every reader of Plato's Republic and his
Laws must know that his ideal Academy was rigorously
dedicated to training "guardians" who were obliged to enter the
service of the polis - over whose morals and culture they were to
exercise a strict censorship. We should talk, rather, of "Lycean"
freedom, since it was in Aristotle's Lyceum that the
principle of free inquiry for its own sake first became a programme.
But this was justified by the belief - which seems remote from
today's "academic" concerns - that it is in the theoretic imitation
of divine self-contemplation that man can best hope to become like
The debate about academic freedom is an ancient one. What exactly
is academic freedom anyway? Is it simply a particular dimension of
the wider freedoms of thought that are generally guaranteed in
modern Western societies? Or does it involve something else -
something that might even be taken so far as to justify "jobs for
life with no reference to performance"? Does it justify academics
doing whatever kind of work they like? And if some regard to the
interests of those who pay for the academy is justified, how far
should this go? And how should the balance of conflicting interests
We can answer the first set of questions by a
lowest-common-denominator utilitarian and pragmatic argument that
singles out academic freedom as a special freedom because of its
links with creativity. Modern societies and economies need creative
knowledge: creativity requires manifold options and possibilities
and creative people need to feel that they are free to explore those
The second set of questions is more difficult to deal with. In
mid-20th century Britain, one kind of answer was attempted. It was
that the state should take over financial responsibility for the
academy, while academics should be free to do what they wanted with
the money. Of course, in practice this was not how the old
University Grants Committee arm's-length system worked: a lot of
those arms were effectively twisted behind the Establishment arras.
But this formula has broken down irretrievably because of a
change in scale. It was conceived for a small number of
institutions, involving small numbers of people and costing peanuts.
Today, we have lots of institutions, well over a million people and
costs amounting to billions of pounds. It is not the case that the
old system secured academic freedom while the new one does not. The
difference is, rather, one between more personal styles of
accountability and more impersonal ones. States consist of
large-scale bureaucracies governed by rule-bound accountabilities.
But there is no doubt that the effects of this on academics are
demotivating. And in the light of our crude utilitarian-pragmatic
argument for encouraging creativity, this must be an unacceptable
outcome. If the old formula has gone, and the present one does not
work, we need a new one.
The old formula embodied two mistakes. One was philosophical:
that academic autonomy was an unconditional absolute. The other was
one of political judgment: that the State and the academy were on an
It is a cliche to characterise the approach that is needed as a
turn to the "market" (a boo-word for too many people). But it can be
described in strictly political terms. The interests of academics
are conditioned by those of many others - taxpayers, students,
employers, non-academic staff, society, economy and culture.
Political balances have to be struck. No balance is attainable
between the academy and the State - the State will always be the
overwhelmingly dominant partner.
The only hope of achieving a political balance is for the academy
to call in a wider range of partners and reduce its dependence on
the State. In this way it can play partners off against each other -
and will stand on a more equal footing with the state.
The academy will always be economically dependent on others: its
best hope of defending its interests is to diversify its dependence.
This is not just a defensive move. The academy has much to learn
from connecting more intimately with a fuller range of the vital
forces emerging in modern society.
Will it work? The US higher education system has its problems but
its success and self-confidence shows the way. Europe's experiment
with state-dominated universities has failed. We need a new
Robert Jackson was Minister for Higher Education
and Science in the Thatcher and Major governments. He crossed the
floor to Labour in 2005, partly in protest at the Conservatives'
opposition to tuition fees.