Friday, 11 September 2009

Money and academic freedom - more on UWA v Gray

Someone in twitter this week said: "One reason UWA lost was academic freedom - court thinks that means freedom to make private $millions". I don't think this is accurate, but it should be said that Gray acted pretty shabbily in this. If you are going to make a lot of money out of your research, it is the right thing to do - either through formal profit sharing or through substantial gifts - to share that with the university. To me, this is a part of academics' membership in the university.

What worried me substantially though, amongst this week's chatter about UWA v Gray, was the patent attorney who made the following argument: The court, he said, claimed that if academics had the right to publish, they basically had the right to destroy the patentability of their work (once knowledge is in the public sphere it is no longer patentable). If they have this right, then they must own it. This is indeed one of the many nuanced arguments in the case.

The worrying thing is the construction this patent attorney put on the right to publish. He said that academics are custodians of public funding, since this is at least partly how their work is funded. I don't dispute that. He claimed that this makes them responsible to provide a financial return on investment. This is a very new idea that I traced in my recent chapter draft as emerging in the 1980s and it has substantial problems. Academics prior to the 1980s were also custodians of public funds. But more importantly they were custodians of knowledge and the intellectual integrity of the community, with a primary responsibility to protect, pursue and disseminate knowledge, not to maximise the public's financial investment. I believe the court is correct in declaring the financial return aim to be contrary to the Acts by which universities exist. And, more importantly, their purpose in society.

The patent attorney (whose name I've unfortunately forgotten, but the link is above) then said that an academic destroying the patentability of their work by publication was wasting public funds in the same way as if they had taken a sledgehammer and destroyed their own laboratory. This is the sentiment I find particularly alarming. The right to publish is central to academic freedom and if financial return is valued over this, then the purpose of the university is at risk.

Why? Because the pursuit of knowledge needs to be, as much as possible, uninfluenced by financial gain, political goals, religious taboos and other threats, otherwise knowledge becomes skewed, narrowed and sometimes false. This is the trust we put in universities. Other organisations do research. But we don't expect them to further knowledge. Take, for example, a pharmaceutical company. They benefit from general developments in pharmaceutical knowledge, but it is not their job to move that forward. Their job is to make a profit (sadly, since we'd hope their priority was to provide medicine to people who need it, but that is another story). They will fund often substantial amounts of research but it is directed at profit-making. If universities had those same priorities, the general moves forward wouldn't happen. And the general moves forward won't happen if there is no academic freedom. Academic freedom is the intangible substance that makes us believe the claims of the university more readily than the claims of a pharmaceutical. And it is why the universities exist. Without it, we might as well just have a lot of commercial and political R&D. And the consequences of that, for society, are too terrible to contemplate.

No comments: