Universities are inescapably embedded in overlapping social and political contexts that at times work to their advantage and at other times to their disadvantage. Notwithstanding the “ivory-tower” image, many of these venerable institutions have had to struggle to balance their independence and the autonomy of their faculty to teach and engage in research with the requirements and restrictions that corporate sponsors and the federal government place on their funding.
Because of the special status of research universities as producers of sound and objective knowledge, it is not unexpected that powerful interests would seek to gain influence over the process of knowledge production when the financial stakes are high. We have learned from the tobacco litigation by state attorneys general how the cigarette manufacturers purchased corrupted science to protect and expand their markets. We have also learned from government litigation against pharmaceutical companies how companies withheld important scientific risk information from the Food and Drug Administration—information that could have prevented adverse drug effects that led, in some cases, to death. In recent years, we have also learned that policy branches of government have censored or influenced the interpretation and dissemination of studies produced by government scientists.
There is ample evidence of cases of corrupted academic science throughout the twentieth century, especially in disciplines with commercial implications. However, the rapid commercialization of scientific and medical research in the 1980s intensified the financial conflicts of interest of many investigators in those areas. The rise of “academic capitalism” was driven by federal policies designed to create partnerships between the corporate sector and research universities. Proponents of those policies believed that by blending these sectors the U.S. economy would gain a competitive advantage over European and Asian economies in new technology. The unanticipated side effect of the new entrepreneurial ethos of science and medicine has been a loss of public confidence in the objectivity and trustworthiness of the science.
This special issue of Academe brings together a distinguished group of researchers, science journalists, legal scholars, and historians who report on attempts to gain control over, influence, censor, restrict, or distort the scientific and research enterprise. These contributors examine issues such as political pressures to eliminate student law clinics, efforts by corporations to intimidate historians investigating the origins of occupational or environmental disease, attempts by private or municipally financed nonprofits to gain control over and place restrictions on university research, and the financial conflicts of interest of scientists who secretly help companies improve their bottom line at the expense of public welfare.
The articles show us how vulnerable the American research community is to external corrupting influences that are concerned not with the quality of knowledge but with its instrumentality in protecting interests, producing wealth, or conferring privilege. But they also show us that research integrity remains alive and well and that full transparency of conflicted interests has discounted the significance of findings in certain areas of corporate-funded research. They underscore the value of academic freedom and autonomy in the pursuit of knowledge—not for special interests but for the common good.