A WSU researcher is gleaning preliminary results from a project that took seed about five years ago in an Oregon conference on sustainable agriculture in western states.

At that time, said WSU’s Leland Glenna, farmers and other participants expressed to two academics — who would become members of the project team — their reluctance to trust some university research. They suspected some researchers’ close ties with the biotechnology industry might taint the objectivity of the research, and thus the reliability of the counsel the farmers received from the university.

The two speakers joined with several other scientists to propose a national study to examine the validity of the participants’ concerns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a $2 million study, now in its fourth and final year, which involves about 10-12 researchers — plant breeders, sociologists, economists and more — from various universities and public institutions nationwide.

“The main goal of the study was to examine the extent to which university/industry research relationships in agricultural biotechnology affect the provision of public goods from the university,” said Glenna, assistant professor in the Department of Community and Rural Sociology.

Defining public and private
In general, the project’s case studies and survey defined public goods or public science as basic and applied research that furthers knowledge or benefits society, but doesn’t lend itself to patenting or otherwise directly yielding economic profit. Private science, in contrast, is marketable to the profit of the researcher, university and, primarily, the company that purchases the rights to the research.

Though in the preliminary stage and undergoing review prior to publishing, the papers resulting from the project seem to indicate some cause for concern if universities intend to continue their mission of providing public science, Glenna said.

“We’ve been struck by how resilient universities have been in their capacity to maintain their public interest focus, but at the same time there are hints that this is changing,” he said. “While most scientists still do far more publications than patents and still seem committed to the value of public research, the concern is that this might be shifting as industry support of research increases.”

Industry cooperation
Glenna also said he has been surprised by the willingness of the ag biotech industry to work with him and others on their project. But there seem to be at least two reasons for industry cooperation:
• First, the nature of product secrecy and competition prevents businesses from discussing such issues among themselves. “We’re providing confidentiality and a forum for them to raise concerns that they otherwise can’t raise,” Glenna said.
• Second, to get products through agency review processes (for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Federal Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency) and on to the market, industry needs objective, third-party analyses of those products. But if there’s a perception that university research or analysis objectivity is tainted from too-close collaboration with industry, agency approval may be denied.

Farmers, too, depend on objective analysis from university researchers to tell them the best ways to manage their crops. With completion of his study, Glenna hopes to shed a little sunshine on the concern of the Oregon conference participants and others that this objectivity might be lacking.

“Can they depend on their university to tell them what’s best if the university stands to gain from one option and not the other?” Glenna asked. “This is a reasonable question if universities become more dependent on private support for their research programs.”