Tories to chain university research even more tightly to business

Science for people not profitBy Ben Towse, UCL, NCAFC Postgrad Co-Rep

Universities minister Jo Johnson announced plans this month to develop a “Knowledge Exchange Framework”, to measure and incentivise universities’ commercialisation of research in England.

Johnson says he wants universities to do more to ensure that their knowledge and research is being put to use in the wider world. But of course, he’s thinking of a narrow set of social applications. Subversive or radical work that seeks to critically examine the powers-that-be, to transform the society we live in, to give a voice to the voiceless and to equip us with the understanding and the intellectual tools to dismantle capitalism and oppression, is hardly going to be at the top of the Tories’ agenda.

Serving capital

Instead the KEF will focus on ranking institutions, and rationing funding, according to how closely they serve private business. That means conducting research programmes under contract for businesses (who direct the research and own its product), offering paid consultancy services, and spinning out new discoveries and inventions for sale to the highest bidder.

Johnson can spout rhetoric about serving society, but what he wants is for universities to serve the needs of one small layer of society: the capitalist class. The KEF follows in the footsteps of the recently-introduced Teaching Excellence Framework, which demands that universities churn out graduates trained and prepared to generate more profit for their future employers, and the longer-standing Research Excellence Framework, which has already ramped up its weighting of research “impact” in such a way as to deprioritise “blue-sky” research and bring commercial interests to the fore.

Dictating priorities

What will be the impacts on universities and research?

First, it will obviously be easier for institutions with a stronger focus on science and technology to compete in these rankings, than those prioritising the arts and humanities.

But we should also worry about the sciences. The drive for business-friendly research outputs favours particular areas of scientific research over others, and it favours particular ways of applying discoveries in the wider world. For instance, rationing funding according to what research can be easily and rapidly commercialised might support the development of new building materials, but it is less likely to value uncovering the mysteries of the big bang.

“Knowledge transfer”: people or profit?

Finally, even in fields where business is keen to see advances, we have to ask – is commercialisation the best way to ensure that knowledge developed in academia is transferred to the real world to improve lives and improve society?

Johnson cites an example of “knowledge exchange” he wants our universities to emulate: Remicade, a medicine discovered at New York University in the 1990s. This one drug earned NYU more in one year than all UK universities made together.

Remicade is one of a class of modern medicines that mimic natural antibodies – the complex molecules used by the body’s immune system to target disease-causing bacteria, viruses and parasites  – and it is used to treat a number of disorders like Crohn’s disease and types of arthritis. Like most such breakthroughs invented by researchers in non-profit universities, this drug was sold off to the private sector. It is now manufactured and sold by two pharmaceutical giants: Johnson & Johnson’s (JNJ) in the US and Merck in Europe.

In 2013, it accounted for about 10% of JNJ’s revenues. That’s not surprising, because the treatment costs £12,500 per year. Patients in the US face hundreds of dollars a month in excess charges on top of their insurance (and that’s if the insurance company will sign off on it: some penny-pinching providers are shunting patients to older drugs with worse side-effects). In the UK, before Remicade’s European patent finally expired, it was the NHS’s fifth costliest drug, with nearly £200m per year going into Merck’s pocket for it. On top of all this, now that expiring patents mean two decades of monopoly are over, JNJ has been accused of dirty tricks trying to squash competitors selling “biosimilar” drugs mimicking Remicade.

Artificial antibody drugs like Remicade are an example of incredible human ingenuity that can change lives. But as long as the means to produce and distribute such medicines on a large scale rest in private hands, the only way for public and non-profit research institutions to translate their discoveries into wider-world benefit is selling them to those for-profit businesses, which ration and limit access to the product, and charge extortionate costs, in order to turn a profit.

Jo Johnson wants us to believe that the only way we can benefit from scientific advances is by going further down this route and whipping universities harder to gear themselves to the desires of capitalists.

Instead, we should be talking about taking those capitalists’ businesses, and the vital infrastructure like pharmaceutical factories that they jealously guard, into collective ownership and democratic control. No longer would public health services (or individuals struggling with health insurance bills) have to hand over millions to big pharma for medical treatments that could only have been produced with knowledge developed in public and non-profit institutions. Instead, science could genuinely serve society, not shareholders.

Next steps

The immediate task facing us is to stop the roll-out of the KEF. A crucial force will be the precarious early career research workers for whom this will mean yet more fetters and hoops to jump through in an already highly-pressured workplace.

Beyond this, we need to set our sights on a socialist alternative. We should be raising the call within Labour and elsewhere for big pharma and similar industries that leech off public research to be nationalised, and for them and research institutions like universities to be placed under the control of their workers, students and the communities they ought to be serving.

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