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U Nevada prof publishes book on the effect of financial motives in university research

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: January 10th, 2018

In his recent book, a University of Nevada assistant professor seeks to discern how the emergence of a profit motive in the field of university research affects the work of academic scientists.

In “A Fractured Profession: Commercialism and Conflict in Academic Science,” David R. Johnson examines how two categories of university researchers view and experience the impact of tech transfer on academic science. The first category includes researchers who actively patent their discoveries, while the second includes “traditionalist” researchers who forgo commercialization opportunities.

“Commercializing discovery is critical to addressing societal problems and generating economic growth,” says Johnson. “But the question that we face as a society is one of balance: How do we simultaneously invigorate basic science? It is an important infrastructure just like roads and highways.”

One of Johnson’s findings is that, contrary to what others have argued, scientists don’t engage in commercially oriented research because they desire the money.

“The pursuit of status and power is equally or more influential than licensing income and royalties,” says Johnson. “How do you stand out in a chemistry or biology department where most of your peers publish in prestigious journals? Commercialization is a new basis of status and power in science, with an elite stratum of scientists who wield power by shaping the technological direction of major corporations.”

According to one commercially focused scientist that Johnson interviewed, “If you want to make change, one of the ways of making change is to grab one of the big energy companies and help them do the right thing.”

At the same time, Johnson stresses the importance of preserving traditional, curiosity-driven research, pointing out that some of the most transformative technological innovations came from research with no commercial motivation.

“Research that led to Magnetic Resonance Imaging, PET scans and GPS technology began with blue-sky thinking,” says Johnson. “Researchers did not set out to invent MRIs, PET scanners or GPS technology — which are now technologically and economically critical — but rather were researching something else without an application in mind.”

Johnson also finds that very few universities make considerable profits from technology transfer. Given this, he says university officials should be more realistic about pushing a financial motive in research.

“Science is messy and unpredictable,” says Johnson. “It would be short-sighted if we only concern ourselves with the potential for technological and economic impacts.”

Source: Nevada Today

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