How to navigate the challenges of corporate-academia research partnerships

How to navigate the challenges of corporate-academia research partnerships

Many research projects draw on sources of funding from the corporate world. Fola Adeleke discusses the challenges inherent to this kind of research and outlines three key considerations for researchers engaging with corporate partners.  


Corporate-academia partnerships increasingly play an important role in engineering innovations that are impactful. However, these partnerships raise questions about academic independence when projects are funded by private interests who may have a separate agenda from the pursuit of knowledge for public benefit. The differing power relations between researchers and corporate funders also raises issues around power asymmetries, which have implications for the ethics of collaborations and intellectual property that have to be addressed to forge successful partnerships.

In a recent paper, I brought together the experiences of a consortium of ten researchers on a project which involved funding from a global corporation to develop a series of research briefs to explore narratives that could potentially influence public policy making in African countries. While the project would benefit the corporate funder, the outcomes were also consistent with what the consortium hoped to be in the public interest. However, there are nevertheless issues that academics should consider when forging corporate-academic partnerships and how to safeguard their independence from external influence from corporate funders.

The role of corporate power in influencing research outcomes

There is a long-established tradition of collaborations between academia and corporations especially when it comes to solving scientific problems or developing new areas of technology. However, corporations are increasingly providing grants to early-stage researchers. We are also seeing a shift, whereby corporations are more ready to accept that they need to be more social value-driven, and universities acknowledge the need to further demonstrate their social relevance and contributions to economic development. For academia and corporations, their role in perpetuating inequalities has come under increasing spotlight and important conversations are emerging on how to produce research and innovation that are not harmful and advance social good.

How to safeguard academic independence in corporate funded research

The principle of academic freedom is vital to the pursuit of knowledge, ideas and innovation. Maintaining this principle allows researchers to conduct work that challenges existing narratives and advances knowledge. It ensures the integrity of research outcomes without external influences and enables the diversity of ideas that can lead to new research discoveries that have public value.

However, academic freedom can be threatened where research funding is limited, and scholars pursue funding partnerships that constrain intellectual independence. This is particularly important when seeking funding from corporate actors who see academic research as only a means of legitimising their corporate aims. Consequently, safeguards are needed to preserve academic integrity when establishing funding partnerships.

 academic freedom can be threatened where research funding is limited, and scholars pursue funding partnerships that constrain intellectual independence.

First, it is necessary for research partnerships to be transparent about the source of their funding and the nature of the research collaboration. This principle is key in building public trust in a research project. The aims and objectives of the research should be clearly defined and available for public scrutiny to avoid accusations of corporate interference in the production of research.

it is necessary for research partnerships to be transparent about the source of their funding and the nature of the research collaboration

Second, academics need to acknowledge that they have to navigate a power and knowledge asymmetry in their research partnerships. This is true of any partnership where funding is entirely dependent on a partner. Consequently, diversity in funding sources is needed by researchers to ensure they are not beholden to one partner. In addition, it is important not to see corporate partners as a source of funding only. For true research partnerships, there must be mutual respect for each other’s knowledge and expertise in the contribution they can both bring to the collaboration.

it is important not to see corporate partners as a source of funding only

There is a great deal of research expertise that exists in industry and academics should not claim a monopoly over knowledge when it comes to their area of expertise. Rather than seeing corporations merely as funding agencies, academics should consider a more collaborative approach to execute research projects. Giving a corporate partner the opportunity to be more collaborative opens the risk of influencing research outcomes. However, such risks can be mitigated by clear conflict of interest management approaches such as policies and guidelines that will clearly define the role of the corporate partner and their contributions.

Third, the question of intellectual property needs to be addressed effectively. It is important to have contractual agreements in place to determine ownership and control of the research outputs and to safeguard the interests of both academics and their corporate partners.

As public funding in academia dwindles and corporations invest more in research to drive innovation that can address global challenges, there is an opportunity for academia to find corporate allies that can help achieve our research goals. These relationships can be successful if pursued carefully with a clear understanding of the long-term impacts of such partnerships. Academics should aim to develop research partnerships that have public value and should consider the positive and negative effects of such partnerships in influencing public policy. Research collaborations are increasingly necessary to ensure we produce more socially beneficial outputs and the private sector is an important partner in achieving this.

 


This post draws on the author’s recent paper, Navigating the Challenges of Business Funding for Research, which is part of the AcPrac case studies series published as part of LSE’S Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme. 

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