As competition intensifies for declining federal science funds, researchers at the University of Minnesota are leaning more on business, industry and other private resources to carry on their work, raising questions of who’s setting the research agenda.
One lab spent more than $2 million from the Wrigley Co. between 2010 and 2014 to study “environmentally compatible” chewing gum that won’t lose its flavor — or stick to pavement.
And the U’s chemical engineering department had to shut down “an ambitious partnership” in the United Arab Emirates after spending $8.2 million over four years to help establish academic programs at the emirates’ Petroleum Institute and Research Center. The Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., which funds the institute, decided that it wanted more targeted research.
Private sources will never match the scale of funding from taxpayers, who paid for about 74 percent of the U’s research expenditures through agencies like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, according to data reviewed by the Star Tribune.
Even so, privately sponsored research is more likely to raise questions about conflicts of interest, as it did when one lab found that 3M chemical workers were not at a higher risk of developing cancer. The $450,000 study was paid for by 3M.
Private sources may also be less patient than federal agencies, which can have a profound impact on the fate of major research initiatives.
In 2009, the U ramped up a research program on Type 1 diabetes based on a pledge of “up to $40 million” from the family of Richard Schulze, the billionaire founder of Best Buy. But after the U spent $22.8 million, the foundation grew impatient at the slow pace of discovery and withdrew additional funding.
Mark Dienhart, president and CEO of the Schulze foundation, said the family was led to believe that the research would lead to clinical trials fairly quickly, which didn’t happen.
“The goal is to somehow reduce human suffering,” Dienhart said. “To advance understanding of a disease — well, that’s good, but not exactly what a person is looking for.”
Dr. Bernhard Hering, the principal investigator, said that although he was disappointed that the foundation withdrew its support, he’s grateful for the work it spawned and noted that it drew additional funds to keep the project going.
‘Not for sale’
U administrators and researchers say that both public and private research dollars ebb and flow, so it’s important to remain flexible and seek diverse sponsors. They say that the U has safeguards to protect academic independence and manage potential conflicts and that working with industry and other private entities helps them to focus on practical problems.
“The university is not for sale,” said Brian Herman, vice president for research. “We do research because the university and its faculty think that they’ve got expertise in an area, and think it’s aligned with an important societal need.”
Some researchers, however, say private donors do influence the agenda.
“As federal dollars get harder and harder to obtain, I think people are increasingly dependent on the private sector,” said Charles Nelson, a Harvard University pediatrics professor who formerly worked at the U. He said he has no quarrel with private funding — provided that researchers disclose any conflicts and remain free to publish their findings in peer-reviewed publications.
But there is a broader concern, he said: “Will this increasingly lead to a narrowing of the research scope?”
Jeff Derby, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the U who was principal investigator on the Abu Dhabi project, said he rarely sees a coordinated effort to divert research interests to chase after money.
“It may sound glib, but there really is this idea that the ideas are coming from the faculty,” Derby said.
That may be so. But William Doherty, a U professor of family social science who has studied ways to help married couples in crisis, said the sponsors’ priorities do influence what gets studied. He said that only conservative groups have been willing to sponsor research on marriage stability. “That’s true of any foundation,” Doherty said. “They fund work in their priority areas.”
John Aldrich, a political-science professor at Duke University, agreed. He said that even well-regarded foundations like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Ford fund research that interests them. “These foundations aren’t named for the guys who worked in coal mines in West Virginia. These are successful capitalists,” Aldrich noted.
“From my point of view,” he added, “if [the money] does come from the government, then that’s better. As James Madison would say, it flows — at least indirectly — from the great body of the people.”
Better chewing gum
Frank Bates, a U Regents professor in chemical engineering and materials science, says there’s good reason why he and his colleagues seek money from companies and private foundations. “It’s an extremely important component in bringing fundamental science to applied technology.”
Bates cites his work leading the Wrigley project as a case in point. The company sought the U’s world-renown expertise in polymers to solve a sticky problem: Gum litter is both annoying and potentially hazardous. The company was looking for polymers that are easier on the environment, yet also bind to sugars and flavors and behave like gum when chewed. “It’s very related to the research we do,” Bates said.
The U had three professors and a number of graduate students working on the problem for six years. When the research ended in 2013, it had resulted in several patents and a couple of journal articles.
“Nothing we do is proprietary and unpublished in the long-term,” Bates said. “Our mission is not just to create technology for companies to use and exploit.”
In fact, the Wrigley project led to what Bates called a “fundamental and extraordinary discovery” about the way soft materials, including living tissue, assemble. If the U can learn science and engineering principles while making products people can use — and earn a modest amount of money in the process, Bates said, “these are all good things in my mind.”
Problems do arise, however.
Marla Spivak, a U bee expert, recalled a dispute she had with Bayer Chemical in the mid-1990s over a pesticide study. She said the company wanted to design an experiment in a way that she felt biased the outcome in favor of its product. “I would not take money from them again,” Spivak said.
She said she hasn’t had any similar problems with other sponsors. “I have a lot of money from other [businesses] like General Mills or other places, and they’re not restrictive,” she said.
Bruce Alexander, who heads the U’s environmental health sciences division in the School of Public Health, said people always ask about conflict of interest when he and his colleagues take money from companies like 3M to study whether their products cause occupational health problems.
The way he sees it, the companies — rather than taxpayers — should fund those studies because they’re reaping the profits. He says the U’s research contracts always give investigators control over the data and the publication of the study results.
“We’ve never had any pushback,” Alexander said.
Don Wyse, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics who has been with the U for 41 years, said industry doesn’t give nearly enough money to conduct research. For decades, Big Ag has relied on basic science funded by taxpayers for major breakthroughs in plants like hybrid corn and soybeans, he said.
Yet Monsanto, a multibillion dollar company, funded just over $500,000 in sponsored research projects at the U from 2010 through 2014.
The university’s primary product is its students, Wyse said. Because they may eventually go to work for Monsanto, he got the company to put up $500,000 every other year for fellowships. That money goes through the University of Minnesota Foundation and has no direct ties to research, he said.
Tracking money from private sources through the U can be difficult. Some funds come in through external sales and services sold at market prices. That raised about $286 million in the past five years from agricultural products, consulting services, laboratory sales and services, and royalty income. About three-fourths of that came from royalties.
Grants that have no constraints — unlike “sponsored research” for specific goals — go through the U’s foundation. The foundation reported spending an average of $39 million a year for research from 2010 through 2014.
Herman, who oversees sponsored programs, said the U is moving to a more integrated reporting system that should make it easier to follow the money.
In the meantime, he said, the public can be assured that the interests of industry and other private benefactors coincide with the faculty’s academic interests and that working together will generate new knowledge in a quicker fashion because of industry support.