Field of Science

Can academic pursuits and money not go hand-in-hand?

This month’s C & EN editorial by Allen J. Bard argues that ‘the culture of academic research has shifted over the past 50 years from research evaluation based on teaching, creativity and productivity to one based simply on the amount of money raised.’

Allen goes on to note that ‘I’ve been to party to tenure discussions that have centred on “scoring two major grants” rather than on the quality of work.’ What is more worrying is that, ‘the fact is that the final decision to fund really comes from the project officers who have often become remote from the frontiers of research and often fall prey to the fad of the mouth’.

He also points out that this has led the universities to focus on demonstrating the ‘economical value’ of the research and their ‘critical mission’ becomes getting more intellectual property (IP) or start-up companies. He concludes by saying, ‘If working closely with students and doing long-term fundamental research is not the goal and money is the important thing, there are more lucrative professions than academic ones for them to pursue.’

If it is true that academics spend 70% of their time writing research proposals then I do agree that Allen has raised some very valid points. But I can’t seem to agree with him that academics should be a pursuit devoid of money.

I think if it’s possible to be an academic who is good at commercialising ideas then one should be. All those monetary benefits of IP that come along with it are a good thing for a university, especially in the economic climate that we are in, where we face major cuts to research spending and increased tuition fees.

Also blaming this capitalistic view of a university for not being able to attract the right talent isn’t right. Academics tend to believe that all the people who do research do it because of the love of the subject and nothing else. Well, they might, but more often than not they may have other reasons. In that respect, the fact that an academic pursuit can lead to a good commercial idea, may actually lure more people than just the subject nerds.

And yet, I cannot agree more that it shouldn’t become the ‘critical mission’ of a university. It may have happened that universities started small, trying to align with the capitalistic nature of the market, by asking academics to ‘think about’ commercialising ideas and over the years reached the point, that they have now, where it has become their ‘main aim’.


  1. Since different types of research attract researchers with different motives, diversity is probably a good thing. But just putting more research under IP protection can backfire - it is expensive and most patents don't generate income.

  2. Both you and Bard are correct. My PhD. advisor made 500 million dollars from his bestselling anti-HIV drug and I always remember his quip- "Your main goal in a university should not be to make money, but if there IS money to be made, you must make sure to make it". Thus, money-making is a cute little ancillary benefit but should never be the main goal of a university.

  3. @JC Bradley: Patents are an investment. Anyone of them can lead to a good deal of money. And I am not aware of this, but I do hope that if some science is under patent protection then it should not mean that further academic research beyond the work on the patent cannot be done by anyone else but the authors. If that is the case then it is not a good idea, someone should look at changing those laws.

    @Ashutosh: Makes complete sense to me. :)

  4. US universities are very difficult to work with from an industrial collaboration point of view because of their desire to generate capital from their IP. The simple truth is that universities and professors have found a great way to make money and promote the innovation of their campus/professors.

    Patents are an investment. Anyone of them can lead to a good deal of money.

    Not always. Many patent are issued, especially in industry (the major generator of patents) simply for strategic reasons. The technology might not have a market, but it distracts the competition. The patents to watch are the ones that are maintained for many years, those cost lots of money (initial filings are cheap) and if someone is willingto maintain and defend the work (as opposed to abandoning it) then there is most likely great earning potential behind the technology.

  5. Akshat - patents are an investment but they can require a surprising amount of money and time - and a strategy. Sometimes they make sense but it is often not a simple decision.

  6. And this post too features in the latest Scientia Pro Publica. Thank you for sharing it.


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