The Closing of the University Commons (19/5/2007)

1.The Closing of the University Commons
2.'A Growing Concern'
3.The Genetic-Industrial Complex: CASHING IN ON LIFE

EXTRACTS: Areas of study that promise to bring in corporate money prosper, while other areas suffer neglect. You can see the effect of this emphasis on intellectual property by walking up a few blocks to the campus to compare the facilities of the BioScience Library with those of the Public Health Library.

In this environment, administrations reflexively take care to weed out critical voices -- not only those who might have radical ideas, but also those whose research questions the value of particular corporate objectives, such as the production of genetically modified crops. Had this administrative mindset been in place a few decades ago, the University of California might not have played as important a role in shining a bright light on the tobacco industry. (item 1)


1.The Closing of the University Commons
by Michael Perelman
Monthly Review, 19 May 2007

The closing of the university commons should come as no surprise. Instead, we might do better to consider the brief opening in the 1960s as a dramatic break with a less pleasant but long-standing tradition -- one in which higher education in the United States was a site of intolerance rather than openness. Historically, the controlling forces of colleges and education were first the church and then wealthy individuals. Under their watch, dissent was effectively snuffed out. Universities were largely the domain of well-to-do students, often even in the land grant colleges, which were initially supposed to train people for the agrarian sector.

A series of fortuitous events disturbed this equilibrium. First, the Great Depression undermined faith in the market, while planning during World War II suggested an alternative to laissez-faire. Then the G.I. Bill opened up the universities to ordinary people to an unprecedented extent. Soon afterwards, universities were growing rapidly to accommodate a huge influx of baby boomers. Finally, the discrediting of McCarthyism briefly subdued the frequent witch hunts that traditionally maintained ideological purity on campus. A relative shortage of candidates for teaching positions made universities less careful about the political leanings of those whom they hired.

The early decades of the postwar period enjoyed one of the most prosperous periods in U.S. history -- so much so that economists typically refer to this time as the Golden Age. Profits were very high even though unemployment was low and union power was at its peak. Finally, vigorous economic activity meant that governments could afford to be relatively generous to higher education -- often in the name of national security.

These happy circumstances were not destined to last. By the late 1960s, the usually high profit rate was beginning to sag, marking the end of the Golden age. Activism seemed to be reaching epidemic proportions.

People in high places were beginning to panic. In 1974 and 1975, the Conference Board held a series of meetings for CEOs, which gave a window into the corporate mindset of the time. The participants expressed grave fears for the future of capitalism in the United States. One warned: "The American capitalist system is confronting its darkest hour" (Vogel and Silk 1976, p. 71). The participants voiced their skepticism for democratic solutions. One executive warned that "the dolts have taken over the power structure and the capacity of the nation in the US" (Vogel and Silk 1976, p. 189). Another asked, "Can we still afford one man, one vote? We are tumbling on the brink." Still another warned: "One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II" (Vogel and Silk 1976, p. 75). Ominously, a number of the assembled executives spoke vaguely of the need for "war-time discipline" and "a more controlled society" (Vogel and Silk 1976, p. 76).

The most effective call to arms came from Lewis Powell, then a little-known corporate attorney, who was destined to be nominated for a Supreme Court position a few months later. Powell's famous memo helped to spark the erection of a complex network of activist think tanks and pro-corporate legal groups, which were central to the right-wing revolution that was to follow.

Interestingly, much of Powell's polemic was directed toward Ralph Nader, whom he regarded as the greatest threat to democracy, at least as Powell imagined it.

Powell's memo was brief in discussing the campuses, but it was also very clear. He complained: "The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system." Powell expected these men and women to act more decisively in supporting their class interests.

Powell and his followers knew that tightening the financial screws on the universities would serve to make the higher education fall into line. This tactic dovetailed with another major goal of the right wing: lowering taxes, which became especially pressing since market forces were not offering much hope for returning profit rates back to their Golden Age peaks.

By the late 1960s, business became alarmed by the fact that the United States was running a deficit in its balance of trade for the first time since World War I.

Here intellectual property came into play. Since United States business presumably had an insurmountable lead in intellectual property, domestic business could gain significant advantages relative to the rest of world.

Since the late 19th century, corporations have regularly turned to the strengthening of intellectual property whenever market forces created crises.

The recent episode of ratcheting up of intellectual property came at a time when universities were strapped for funds. Large universities with cutting-edge science were quick to realize that intellectual property represented a source of money that could help to substitute for rapidly shrinking state support. Areas of study that promise to bring in corporate money prosper, while other areas suffer neglect. You can see the effect of this emphasis on intellectual property by walking up a few blocks to the campus to compare the facilities of the BioScience Library with those of the Public Health Library.

Alas, today we are left with a highly corporatized form of higher education. Administrators now operate their colleges and universities in terms of fiscal results, leaving the academic mission to wither, except in so far as they serve the needs of the corporations to have the appropriately trained personnel. For example, higher tuition may serve fiscal purposes by bringing in more money, but it threatens to exclude many deserving potential students or undermine their education by making them work too many hours to effectively follow their studies.

In this environment, administrations reflexively take care to weed out critical voices -- not only those who might have radical ideas, but also those whose research questions the value of particular corporate objectives, such as the production of genetically modified crops. Had this administrative mindset been in place a few decades ago, the University of California might not have played as important a role in shining a bright light on the tobacco industry.

In the process, academic research into science and technology has become narrower, targeted to serve short-term fiscal objectives. The consequences of this concentration on applied research are an inadequate attention to more basic research -- the kind of science that does not pay dividends for several decades. Yet basic research is just the kind of science that eventually made possible the sort of breakthroughs in applied research we have seen in recent years. Already, alarming signs of the consequences of this shift in emphasis are appearing. For example, patent applications are citing university research less frequently -- and not because of an upsurge in corporate research.

The emphasis on intellectual property also creates an atmosphere of secrecy, which creates a further barrier to future technological and scientific progress.

The corrosive effects of the shortsighted restructuring of higher education have largely gone unnoticed. Administrators compete with each other in bidding away academic stars, building huge edifices, and padding each other's pockets.

Vogel, David, and Leonard Solomon Silk. 1976. Ethics and Profits: The Crisis of Confidence in American Business. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Michael Perelman is professor of economics at California State University at Chico, and the author of fifteen books, including Steal This Idea: Intellectual Property Rights and the Corporate Confiscation of Creativity, The Perverse Economy: The Impact of Markets on People and the Environment, and Railroading Economics: The Creation of the Free Market Mythology. This is the text of a talk that Perelman gave at a conference in Berkeley on 28 April 2007 on the corporatization of the university. Visit his blog Unsettling Economics: A Progressive Look at Economics and the Rest of the Screwed-up World at <michaelperelman.wordpress.com/>.


2.'A Growing Concern' (Part 3)
[from 'Mother Jones' - US investigative journalism]

[This investigation into the GE cotton crop failures back in 1997 focuses (in part 3) on the relationship between US university scientists and the biotech industry. Here are some excerpts.]

[Texas entomologist John] Benedict blames the system. "The universities are cheering us on, telling us to get closer to industry, encouraging us to consult with big business. The bottom line is to improve the corporate bottom line. It's the way we move up, get strokes.... We can't help but be influenced from time to time by our desire to see certain results happen in the lab."

Private industry contributes 10 percent of Texas A&M's whopping $41 million annual agricultural research budget, and Benedict says he knew Monsanto was contributing money to his research. "All of these companies have a piece of me," Benedict says. "I'm getting checks waved at me from Monsanto and American Cyanamid and Dow, and it's hard to balance the public interest with the private interest. It's a very difficult juggling act, and sometimes I don't know how to juggle it all."

Science for Sale?

Congress has helped pave the way for corporate biotech programs, passing a series of laws in the 1980s that pushed federally funded research at universities into the eager hands of agrochemical companies. Congressional specialty grants, which are designed to let Congress respond to pressing agricultural concerns, are generally awarded to researchers who already have industry sponsors in place...

Under a banner of global competitiveness, this new relationship between academia, business, and government encourages universities to waste no time converting their science into patent rights. Previously, such research had been considered public property. Any patents that emerged typically were held by government. Indeed, so ingrained was this public ethos that when Jonas Salk was asked who owned the patent to his polio vaccine, he responded incredulously, "The people, I would say. Could you patent the sun?"

Today, however, universities are quick to license patent rights to companies for profit-making. These same companies, meanwhile, award grants to university entomologists and geneticists to conduct research on future products.

Often, critics say, it doesn't take a great deal of money to entice a university department or scientist over to the corporate side, particularly in this time of state and federal funding cuts. "Universities are more than ever hunting for corporate money, and while that money may be a small percentage of the overall budget, it's often enough to influence the direction of public science,'' explains Kathleen Merrigan of the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, a nonprofit research and education organization based in Washington, D.C. "Corporate money can be the tail that wags the dog." For example:

In 1985, Cornell University agreed to do research on bovine growth hormone (BGH) for Monsanto. Tess Hooks, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario whose graduate work at Cornell dealt with scientific ethics, reviewed the agreement between Cornell and Monsanto.

According to Hooks, the university would test BGH on dairy cows and report the findings to Monsanto, which would present its case to the FDA. The government agency would then decide if the hormone -- which increases a cow's milk production -- created any health risks to cows or milk consumers. But before Cornell received the $557,000 grant from Monsanto, Hooks says, it essentially had to agree to hand over control of its research to the biotech company.

... At North Carolina State University, a miniscandal erupted three years ago when several professors were found to be moonlighting as paid consultants to Rhone-Poulenc, Monsanto, and American Cyanamid -- at the same time the professors were evaluating the companies' biotech products for the university. One distinguished weed science professor, Harold Coble, appeared in a Rhone-Poulenc marketing brochure singing the virtues of the company's genetically engineered cotton plant and its companion herbicide, bromoxynil. "There isn't a downside to the BXN," he says in the brochure...

...in some cases it is difficult to tell where public research ends and the company's marketing begins.

Take, for example, the August 25, 1996, letter from Ron H. Smith, an entomologist at Auburn University, that Monsanto faxed to Mother Jones in support of its Bt cotton. "Weeks from now," Smith wrote, "when the last bale of the 1996 cotton crop is harvested...producers finally will have time to pause and reflect on the revolution that has gripped their profession. The results, so far, have been astonishing.... The proof, as they say, is in the pudding -- or, in this case, the [farmer's] pocketbook."

Although the letter bore Smith's signature, an Auburn public relations official actually wrote it for him. When asked if he received any funding from Monsanto for his research, Smith replied, "No, not directly." However, Mother Jones found university records indicating that Monsanto gave $500,000 to Auburn University between 1991 and 1996; $26,000 was earmarked for projects listing Smith's name. When asked again, Smith confirmed the information, saying he had misunderstood the original question.


3.The Genetic-Industrial Complex: CASHING IN ON LIFE http://ngin.tripod.com/pblinks2.htm

CASHING IN ON LIFE, JEAN-PIERRE BERLAN, Director of Research at the National Agronomic Research Institute (INRA), France, and RICHARD C. LEWONTIN, holder of the Alexander Agassiz chair in zoology and professor of population genetics at Harvard University, USA. Article in LE MONDE DIPLOMATIQUE - December 1998

...Research work is being hampered by the privatisation of knowledge, genetic resources and the techniques for their use.

...experience shows that the price of privatised "genetic progress" is and will be exorbitant.

...giving up our rights in living things means giving the genetic-industrial complex a free hand to guide technical progress into the paths that will bring it the most profits rather than those that will be most useful to society. Rambling on about progress in general while ignoring how things are done in practice smacks of deception. As does invoking some alleged "social demand" in justification of the scientific choices made by the authorities. Public opinion is massively against GMO[s]. So there is no "social demand" for GMO[s]; the term is simply being used as a smokescreen for the demands of the genetic-industrial complex.

By cutting themselves off from society in the name of objectivity and technology, biologists are falling victim to their own narrow concept of causality and their "a-historicity" - easy prey for investors. But the way for researchers to work for that better world that the vast majority want is for them to open themselves up to the scrutiny of their fellow citizens. That means scientific democracy.

The genetic-industrial complex is trying to transform political questions into technical and scientific ones so that responsibility for them can be shifted on to bodies it can control. Its experts, dressed in the candid probity and the white coat of impartiality and objectivity, use the camera to distract people's attention. Then they put on their three piece suits to negotiate behind the scenes the patent they have just applied for, or sit on the committees that will inform public opinion - quite objectively, it goes without saying - and regulate their own activities. It is a serious thing when democracy no longer has any independent experts and has to depend on the courage and honesty of a few scientists and researchers, as it must, for example, in the nuclear industry.

Such abuses are beginning to elicit a timid reaction. American biological journals, for example, are asking their contributors to declare their personal or family interests in biotechnology companies and their sources of funding (18). This is the minimum level of transparency that should be asked of anyone who takes the floor or sits on committees of supposedly independent experts. We would then become aware of the genetic-industrial complex's many and various ramifications.

In short, do we want to allow a few multinationals to take control of the biological part of our humanity by granting them a right - legal, biological or contractual - over life itself? Or do we want to preserve our responsibility and our autonomy? Will farmers' organisations continue to allow ruinous techniques to be imposed upon them or will they debate what would be in the farmers' and the public's interest with renewed public research and a network of breeder-agronomists? Finally, what are the intentions of "public" agronomic research - which for decades has been privatising the material of life economically, and now biologically?

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