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One topic we have written on in the past is the growing presence and influence of industry in academia. Commercial companies have an impact when they directly sponsor studies; when they hire academics as consultants; when they endow chairs or donate facilities; when they license intellectual property to or from universities; and so on.
This past week, an entire conference on the subject, organized by Mordechai Gilo, was sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Ethics, hosted by Kibbutz Lavi with presenters including Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover and former Labor and Social Welfare Minister Zevulun Orlev.
Industry involvement has unquestioned benefits for academia. One positive effect is the provision of massive resources to academic institutions, particularly in new fields of study where large investments such as expensive laboratories are needed. Another plus is that industry is itself a focus for research and development; cooperation with academia provides university researchers with access to leading-edge studies done in private industry, which otherwise might have remained secret. In past generations, scientists often had to choose between going into industry and applied science in order to make money, or remaining in academia to stay on the cutting edge of research. But in the last generation many have found that industry provides both more recompense and also more of an intellectual challenge.
However, conference participants warned of many dangers of the new, cozy relations between industry and academia. The hallmarks of academic research are independence and openness - professors should ideally choose research topics according to the contribution they make to human knowledge, and then make their results known to all humanity. When for-profit companies are involved, they may skew research agendas to topics that have immediate commercial applications at the expense of those with a greater long-term contribution. In addition, they may contribute to a culture of secrecy, appropriate to the business world, which directly contradicts the culture of openness that characterizes academia. Researchers have become reluctant to publish their results when these results have commercial potential; the individual researcher, the academic institution (which typically owns patents on inventions developed under its auspices) or the sponsoring company may feel that they have the right or even the obligation to keep the findings secret so they may be exploited for commercial gain.
Even the advantage of increased resources may be partially illusory. Some presenters argued that industry funding may crowd out public funding, resulting in diminished, not augmented, resources devoted to certain vital areas of study.
Participants suggested a number of necessary safeguards, including clear definition of the appropriate boundaries of corporate partnerships and insistence that public funding sources including government and foundations maintain their commitment to funding basic, open research.
The main focus of industry involvement is in the natural sciences, and naturally most conference presenters focused on this area of research. However, the conference closed on a more humanistic note, with my own lecture analyzing how marketplace values impact the study of the humanities.
Commercial culture impacts the studies of the humanities in many ways. One concern is that the study of humanities, which is meant to teach mankind what values it should cultivate, is being reduced to a mere tool in the service of commercial values. The study of literature may be considered valuable because it teaches students skills that will make them writers of advertising copy and the study of history, because it develops analytical skills useful in formulating business strategy. The idea of the academy as a reservoir of eternal or higher values is eroded, and instead of the concept of objective values, we are left only with the subjective concept of marketplace valuation.
Commercial culture not only influences the academy, it also competes with it. Even as the relatively few scholars of humanities are teaching us to value wisdom and the elevating influence of high culture, commercial firms are investing trillions of dollars, urging us to put the highest value on transient experience and popular culture, guaranteeing a short-lived high that will oblige us to spend more money tomorrow.
It is true that in past centuries, high-brow academic cultural values have often been taken to extremes that cut them off from popular relevance, but it seems to me that in the twenty-first century the problem is the weakness, and not the strength, of a developed and revered humanistic tradition.
I also pointed out that current trends in the humanities themselves aggravate the problem. Post-modernist scholarly currents tend to cultivate an extreme skepticism towards claims of any particular value system to authority or legitimacy. Taken to extremes, this skepticism casts doubt on the importance of the study of the humanities themselves, further weakening the ability of this traditional bastion of cultural values to withstand the onslaught of commercial values.
Gilo expressed confidence that this skeptical trend will prove a passing fad, and that academic study of the humanities will revive and thrive as a community of inspired individuals dedicated to disinterested cultivation of the human spirit.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org) an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.