Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 1021–1031 | Cite as

AFHVS 2017 presidential address

The purpose-driven university: the role of university research in the era of science commercialization


As efforts to commercialize university research outputs continue, critics charge that universities and university scientists are failing to live up to their public-interest purpose. In this paper, I discuss the distinctions between public-interest and private-interest research institutions and how commercialization of university science may be undermining the public interest. I then use Jürgen Habermas’s concept of communicative action as the foundation for efforts to establish public spaces for ethical deliberation among scientists and university administrators. Such ethical deliberation is necessary to facilitate discussion on whether public-interest science should be the research university’s primary purpose and what institutional rules and resources are needed to honor that purpose.


Public research Commercial science Public interest Food and agricultural research and development 


Science commercialization refers to policies, institutional incentives, and scientist practices related to a range of commercial activities, including accessing industry funding for research, pursuing intellectual property protections and licensing revenue, serving on industry advisory boards, consulting for industry, and establishing start-up companies. The origin of this commercialization era can be traced back to the United States’ 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which enabled research universities to claim title to inventions and to license those inventions to the private sector. Prior to the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, academic scientists generally had to work outside of institutional parameters to commercialize their research discoveries (Mowery et al. 2004). Since 1980, nearly every other OECD nation has adopted a policy similar to the Bayh-Dole Act (Brandl and Glenna 2016).

Some claim that commercialization is desirable because it reflects the efficient transfer of knowledge from the public to the private sector (Allen 2012; Thursby and Thursby 2002; Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000). Others argue that commercialization raises concerns that go to the heart of public trust in science, as well as the integrity and trustworthiness of science (Marks and Thompson 2011). Furthermore, Lewis (2010) notes that the fundamental duty of a public institution is to serve the public interest, while the fundamental duty of a private firm is to maximize the return on shareholder investments. Because of these distinct institutional purposes, Lewis (2010) argues that promoting public–private collaborations and encouraging universities to act more like the private sector can yield private successes, but also public failures. These critiques suggest that universities and university scientists have a responsibility to strive for more than self-interests and more than maximizing their institution’s monetary return on research investments. Since commercialization of university science in premised on the idea that self-interested pursuits yield more public benefits than public-interest pursuits, it is necessary to explain why commercialization of university science is flawed and why ethical deliberation among university administrators and scientists is necessary to begin reversing this trend towards more science commercialization.

After distinguishing between public-interest and private-interest research institutions, as well as between the corresponding expectations for scientists within those institutions, I present evidence to indicate that critics are justified in questioning whether universities and university scientists are neglecting the public-interest. Finally, I discuss how Habermas’s concept of communicative action offers an approach to promoting ethical deliberation among university administrators and scientists on the purpose of the research university.

The university and the public interest

The idea that universities and university scientists should serve the public interest rests on the premise that there are clear distinctions between public and private institutions and that there are clear distinctions between public and private interests. Decades of theoretical and empirical work has documented different institutional characteristics between university and industry research institutions.

In an effort to justify public investment in public science, prominent post-war sociologists (e.g. Merton 1973) and economists (e.g. Samuelson 1954, 1955; Nelson 1959; Arrow 1962) developed a theoretical framework to describe the distinct norms and incentives that differentiate university and industry science research. A foundational assumption in their work is that social welfare is contingent on the production of private and public goods (Brandl and Glenna 2016). Private goods are rivalrous (depleted or made less available when someone uses them) and excludable (relatively easy to prevent someone from using the good without paying for it). Agricultural machinery and agricultural land are examples of private goods. By contrast, public goods are non-rivalrous (tend not to be depleted or made less available when someone uses them) and non-excludable (not easy to prevent others from using without paying for it). A journal article that explains how agricultural practices contribute to climate change is a public good. No matter how many people read it and use the information in their work, it is no less available. In addition, once in the public domain it is difficult or impossible to exclude individuals from using it or to charge for its use.

The distinction between public and private goods is at the heart of efforts to understand the differences between public and private institutions. Because public goods are non-excludable and non-rivalrous, it is difficult for the private sector to gain a return on investment for generating them. Therefore, the private sector lacks an incentive to invest in them. However, because many public goods have social value, social scientists tend to argue that the public sector is responsible for generating public goods (Brandl and Glenna 2016).

Traditionally, the public sector has embraced this role, but there are examples when the public sector has subsidized the private sector by supporting research that yields a private-good solution to a public problem. When Germany faced soil fertility problems in the early twentieth century, there were two basic options for solving the problem. One was to improve farmer knowledge on how to enhance soil fertility through sustainable tillage techniques. The other was to develop a synthetic fertilizer. The first option could be characterized as a public good, because knowledge about tillage techniques is not excludable and not rivalrous. The second option was more conducive to privatization because it could be converted into a commercial product, and that commercial approach was adopted (Uekötter 2010). Harwood (2012) describes years of conflict in Europe over whether to promote public or private solutions to agricultural problems.

Something similar emerged during the middle decades of the twentieth Century in the United States when scientists were exploring two approaches to increasing maize yields. One was to improve open-pollinated varieties. The other was to develop hybrid varieties. Since seeds can be saved from open-pollinated maize to plant the following year, it is not conducive to privatization. However, because hybrid maize does not pass improved yield to the second generation of seeds, it is conducive to privatization, and that approach was adopted (Kloppenburg 2004). Because Germany and the US sought to encourage private investment in agriculture, both nations have tended to pursue privatization options when they are available, albeit with different policy and regulatory strategies for promoting privatization (Brandl and Glenna 2016).

The use of agricultural biotechnology to generate genetically engineered crops has also stimulated private investment in research because genetically engineered crops were granted patent rights before other crops were (Brandl and Glenna 2016; Kloppenburg 2004). Although major crops have long gotten more attention because of the influence of agribusiness and large farmers, there is evidence that agricultural biotechnology exacerbated the shift in focus of university research towards major crops, and away from orphan and minor crops (NAS 2010, 2016). Major crops include commodities like maize, wheat, and rice, which are produced on enough acreage to make it profitable to invest in research and development on those crops. By contrast, minor and orphan crops, including many fruit and vegetable crops, are produced on a smaller scale. Therefore, the incentive for investment in research and development for these crops is less than for major crops. As a result, universities have primarily conducted the research on these minor and orphan crops (Welsh and Glenna 2006). However, Welsh and Glenna (2006) found that during the first decade after the commercialization of genetically engineered crops, universities tended to conduct biotechnology research on major crops and major traits, rather than minor crops and minor traits. As a result, university research agendas came to look more like private-sector research agendas.

This is a concern because the division of labor that emerged between public and private research institutions has largely come to define public-interest and private-interest research (Lacy 1989). Lacy (2001) constructs ideal typologies to describe the different institutional characteristics of university and industry science (see Table 1). These typologies do not mean that each research institution does not engage in some activities in both columns. However, empirical research indicates that scientists in each respective institution tend to adhere to these different characteristics (Lacy et al. 2014).

Table 1

Characteristics of university and industry science research institutions

University research

Industry research

Societal responsibility

Proprietary responsibility

Advancement of knowledge

Marketable products and profit

Open-ended goals

Specific objectives and tasks

Long-term, deliberate

Short-term, quick, urgent

Open communication








Basic and applied research

Applied and development research



Although these typologies are meaningful in making distinctions between university and industry scientist values, I do not seek to reify the distinctions. For example, public benefits may emerge from universities doing more multidisciplinary research and having more of a team approach. Similarly, industry might benefit from more open communication and a more long-term approach. However, the point here is to clarify the traditional distinctions and to question whether these characteristics still accurately describe the scientific practices and outputs of these institutions. In the next section, I explore the drivers of commercialization and the potential detrimental impacts on university science.

Impacts of commercialization on public-interest science

University science is likely becoming more commercial because it is under increasing pressure to do so. As Berman and Paradeise (2016) and Busch (2017) explain, declining public research funding and demands for accountability (often in the form of commercialized outputs) are leading scientists and universities to look for new funding sources and industry partners. Furthermore, universities have been portrayed increasingly as economic growth engines (Berman 2012). Several broad indicators support this argument that universities and university scientists need to find new revenue sources to supplement declining public funds.

Figure 1 shows changes in sources for university research funding from 1972 to 2014. The percentage of university research funding from the federal and state governments declined steadily. In 1972, the federal government accounted for 68.2% of university funding and the state accounted for 10.2%. As of 2014, that support is at 57.7 and 5.6%, respectively.

Fig. 1

Percentage of academic science and engineering R&D expenditures, by source of funding: 1972–2014.

Source NSF (2016)

Industry support accounted for 2.8% of funding in 1972, rose to 7.4% in 1999, and now accounts for about 5.7% (Fig. 1). Some may be surprised to see that industry money accounts for such a small percentage of research funding, since much concern about science commercialization stems from the perception that industry funding is altering university research agendas. Studies indicate that the impacts of industry money are more substantial than the percentages indicate because the percentages are much higher in some fields and disciplines than others (Crowe and Goldberger 2009; Davis et al. 2009) and because industry sponsors often target their research funding to maximize their interests (Moeen and Agarwal 2016; Glenna et al. 2007). For example, a small, strategically targeted research grant can enable a company to gain access to more knowledge and workers than their small amount of support would indicate (Glenna et al. 2007). Despite these discussions on industry influence, industry support remains small relative to federal support.

What might warrant more concern is the rise in the percentage of funding from universities themselves. In 1972, universities provided 11.6% of research funding. In 2014, universities accounted for 22.4%. This suggests that universities are driven to generate their own revenue streams to support research and development, just as private firms must generate their own revenue streams. If universities feel compelled to generate a monetary return on investment, they are less likely to conduct public-interest research, such as research on orphan and minor crops, because it is less likely to generate revenue. Newfield (2016) confirms that universities are increasingly funding their research internally, but he also observes that these investments rarely lead to the expected revenue streams, thus, leading to financial problems for the universities.

One way that universities strive to generate more revenue is to encourage individual researchers to pursue intellectual property protections and licensing options. Figure 2 indicates that university scientists are becoming more active in patenting and licensing activities. In 2013, there were 21,596 invention disclosures, 13,573 patents filed, 5220 patents granted, and 5865 licenses executed. That is substantially higher than 2003, when there were 13,718 invention disclosures, 7203 patents filed, 3450 patents granted, and 3855 licenses executed.

Fig. 2

U.S. university patenting activities: 2003–13.

Source NSF (2016)

It is important to point out that pursuing intellectual property does not necessarily yield more revenues. Newfield (2016) asserts that the revenues are typically so meager that funding for research and intellectual property pursuits are being subsidized by student tuition. Another important issue to highlight is that these intellectual property activities and the revenues they do generate are not distributed evenly among universities. Just 201 out of all universities in the United States received 99% of patents granted to universities between 1996 and 2014. Over 50% of those patents went to just 20 research universities (NSF 2016). This indicates that universities are not equally benefiting from science commercialization.

There are additional political-economic issues that may be influencing scientific research. Clancy et al. (2016) track changes in private and public funding for food and agricultural research in the United States from 1970 to 2014 (see Fig. 3). Since the private share of overall food and agriculture research funding is increasing while the public share is declining, the private sector is likely shaping the national research and development agenda, and university scientists are merely responding to that private-interest agenda. Research indicates that countries favoring private sector food and agricultural research have more modest yield increases than countries that emphasize public investments in food and agricultural research and development (Glenna et al. 2015a).

Fig. 3

Overall Trends in Ag & Food R&D Funding in constant 2013 US$, billions.

Source Clancy et al. (2016)

The substantive question is how these trends affect university research. Thorough overviews of the scholarly record offer competing perspectives on how commercialization has affected academic science. Some emphasize positive outcomes and advocate for more commercialization (see Allen 2012; Thursby and Thursby 2002; Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff 2000). Grimaldi et al. (2011) claim that more commercialization presents some concerns, but they assure the reader that it has not led to less basic research. By contrast, Mirowski (2011) contends that the trend has led to substantial distortions in the framing of university research and research outputs. Indeed, Buccola et al. (2009) found that public and private research funding crowded each other out in university research. And Sterckx (2011) explains that any benefits are often accompanied by negative outcomes. Indeed, studies have found a rise in data withholding, secrecy, and impaired communication among university scientists (Powers and Campbell 2011; Vogeli et al. 2006; Blumenthal and Campbell 1996; Curry and Kenney 1990; Blumenthal et al. 1986). Scholarship in the political economy of science has also explored how academic-industry interactions nudge university scientists to adopt the characteristics of their industry counterparts (Welsh and Glenna 2006; Cummings and Kiesler 2005) and create institutional conflicts of interest (Johns et al. 2003). Intellectual property conflicts have become common among research universities, as in the case of CRISPR gene-editing technology (Pollack 2017). Research also indicates that scientific fraud is often associated with commercial ties (Martinson et al. 2005, 2009). Industry funding is correlated with outcomes favorable to the funder, likely due to researcher bias, whether conscious or unconscious (Rose et al. 2010).

Some research focuses on the institutional changes that promote more public–private collaboration. Owen-Smith and Powell (2002), for example, describe the development of a biotechnology field that blurs the distinction between public and private science. A second body of literature focuses less on external economic and political pressures and more on social norms, standards, and expectations internal to the science profession (Tuchman 2009). Lam (2010), Biscotti et al. (2009), and Jain et al. (2009) reflect this perspective by studying the individual-level issues, such as identity formation, that promote commercialization. Some claim that this body of literature is overly focused on culture. Vallas et al. (2011) argue that the focus on changing norms, standards, and expectations pays too little attention to the political and economic shifts driving the change.

Glenna et al. (2011) seek to bridge the structure-culture dichotomy by examining the relationships between external factors, such as industrial funding source, and internal factors, such as scientist values, and their resulting scientific research outputs. They find that university scientists who receive industry funding are more likely to conduct proprietary research than those who receive NSF funding, which is public funding. In addition, industry funding also led to more applied and less basic research among university scientists. They also find that scientists with public-interest research values are less likely to pursue proprietary research, while those with a market orientation are more likely to pursue proprietary research. This indicates that scientist values matter. It also indicates that an effort to create public spaces for ethical deliberation among scientists might be worthwhile. After all, if value orientations influence practices, then scientist discussions about their value orientations may also influence practices, which is a subject I will return to in the latter part of this paper.

As I mentioned earlier, Welsh and Glenna (2006) compared university and industry agricultural biotechnology researchers work on major and minor crops. They found that university research programs in agricultural biotechnology changed over time to have a greater focus on major crops and traits than on minor crops and traits. This is not surprising since, as we noted earlier, genetically engineered crops have attracted more private investments because they were open to patents before other crops were.

The rise of crop patenting is also important because there is evidence that some university research is being hindered and even blocked because of intellectual property protections and university-industry research collaborations. Because of patents on some genetically engineered crops and, increasingly, non-genetically engineered crops, people must pay a licensing fee or otherwise gain permission for the right to plant them and to conduct research on them. This means that university and government researchers must secure material transfer agreements to gain access to patented materials for research purposes, which has been cited as a potential obstacle to innovation (Wright 2007; Lei et al. 2009; Glenna et al. 2015b). One of those studies (Lei et al. 2009) indicates that intellectual property protections may be hindering research and innovation because a firm or university holding a crop patent on germplasm may legally block research on that crop. The creation of PIPRA, a clearinghouse for intellectual property information in the field of agricultural biotechnology, was developed to address some of the concerns raised by patents on GE crops, such as patent thickets and constraints on research (Graff and Zilberman 2001). However, recent research has revealed that university scientists report that patents limit their ability to publish research findings, constrain university research freedom, inhibit research that might be useful in evaluating the efficacy and environmental impacts of a GE crop, and, in the long term, may reduce innovation (Wright 2007; Waltz 2009; Glenna et al. 2015b). A group of 50 crop breeders met in August of 2016 to discuss how declining funds and rising intellectual property protections are constraining public researchers (Gewin 2017). It is too early to know whether their advocacy will have an impact.

A 2004 US National Academies of Science report on the U.S. patent system recommended “some level of protection for noncommercial uses of patented inventions” (NAS 2004, p. 82). For example, university scientists could be given exemptions to do research on patented technologies. Furthermore, facing obstacles to conducting research, presidents at fourteen universities joined six foundations to implement the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA) policy, which is designed to give public research institutions the freedom to operate with minimal intellectual property constraints (Atkinson et al. 2003). However, the federal government has not yet created a policy to provide university research exemptions.

In addition to the impacts of commercialization on the ability to conduct research, there is a concern about how science commercialization affects the framing of university research. Marks (2014) claims that industry-university research collaborations have led scientists to frame the problem of obesity primarily as a problem of personal responsibility, which is best addressed by changes in individual behaviors, as opposed to something that is fostered by social and economic inequalities and exacerbated by the manufacturing and marketing practices of agribusiness actors. This is problematic because universities have traditionally been responsible for non-proprietary research that the private sector lacks an incentive to invest in. If universities are not doing the non-proprietary or more holistic research on social problems, such as the negative impacts of processed food and the proliferation of corn syrup on human wellbeing, such research is not likely to be done.

Furthermore, although university scientists are currently trusted by the public (Lang 2013), that trust is unlikely to persist when the scientists are increasingly collaborating with and behaving like the industries that the public does not trust. Besley et al. (2017) ran an experiment that asked people to evaluate the legitimacy of research that was publicly funded and conducted by university scientists compared to research that had various private sector influences. They found that any involvement by the private sector, in terms of funding or participation in the research, tended to reduce the perceived legitimacy of the research.

The New York Times ended 2016 with a series of articles on industry interactions with and influences on university scientists. One focused on conflicts of interest among members of a National Academies of Science committee formed to discuss the future regulation of genetically modified food (Strom 2016). Another article described industry influence on university science research agendas (Hakim 2016).

Books for popular readership raise similar concerns. Baker (2008) explains that 100% of industry funded studies found no harm from BPA (bisphenol A) in water battles, while 86% of independently funded studies found evidence of harm. It is little wonder, then, that public trust often depends on the institutional location of the scientist doing the research. In the case of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food, the public trusts university scientists far more than it trusts industry scientists (Lang 2013; Lang and Hallman 2005). However, there is some reason to question whether that trust will be maintained as universities become more involved in commercialization ventures. Rose et al. (2010) found that researchers involved in the design, analysis, interpretation, and reporting on the results of oncology clinical trials often have financial ties to industry. Sterckx (2011) observes that policy makers in the US and Europe tend to ignore evidence of negative impacts of university-industry relationships. In reflecting on issues such as these, Lessig (2011, p. 32) claims that when an interested party is funding the research or is involved in the research, the public is left to wonder if “it might have been [commercial] interest, not science, that explains the results.”

Communicative action and the research university

To address the concerns just presented, I argue that university scientists and administrators need to debate the impacts of the current trends and potential alternative approaches to organizing universities and conducting research. Habermas’s (1981) theory of communicative action and Nelson’s (2006) critique of Habermas’s work provide a strategic foundation for promoting ethical deliberation among university administrators and scientists on the subject of the public interest. To summarize briefly, Habermas (1981) describes two prominent spheres of social interaction and culture formation in contemporary society. The first is lifeworld, which refers to the informal, non-market interactions of family life and civil society. Interactions in the lifeworld tend to focus on understanding and consensus formation. The second sphere, system, refers to the dominant political and economic institutions that govern interactions through the steering media of money and power and are directed at maximizing efficiency and monetary returns on investments. Although people may seek to promote kindness and justice in daily interactions of the lifeworld, the emphasis on maximizing efficiency and monetary returns on investment in the system sphere serve to systematically exclude moral and ethical concerns. As a result, according to Habermas (1981, 1990), political and economic systems tend to colonize the lifeworld. Colonization refers to the tendency of the steering media of money and power to become dominant in the lifeworld, leading people to evaluate social interactions according to maximizing efficiency and monetary returns on investment at the expense of ethical deliberation (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Nelson’s (2006) depiction of Habermas’s theory of the colonization of the lifeworld by the economic system

Habermas’s framework is useful when analyzing the commercialization of university science. One could describe university science as traditionally being governed by public-interest science norms. Certainly, it was never immune to economic influences. Rosenberg’s (1976) discussion on the influence of agribusiness and commodity growers on the development of agricultural experiment stations in the United States is a good illustration. And there was always an implicit understanding that scientific research would yield economic benefits in the long run (Mirowski 2011). However, following the Second World War, Vannevar Bush worked with industry leaders and scientific experts to convince the United States Congress that it was in the nation’s interest to give scientists some autonomy to determine what research should be funded through the peer review process (Kleinman 1995; Busch 2000). Recent changes indicate that university research is increasingly being influenced by the goals of economic efficiency and monetary returns on investment. Block (2011) appeals to Walzer’s (1984) Spheres of Justice to make a similar argument. He contends that societies establish institutions to serve particular social functions that are not governed by economic rationality. The military, governments, universities, and other institutions have ways to motivate members without promising to maximize their individual incomes. Block (2011, p. 24) claims that it is problematic when economic rationality becomes the governing rationale of universities because “Walzer’s critical insight is that each of these intertwined spheres needs to be true to its own organizing principles.” These institutions were developed to achieve specific, complementary, and overlapping goals. Altering them to conform to market norms is likely to undermine their original purpose.

It is not my intent to offer some romantic history of university science. Rather, the point is to recognize that the moral and ethical considerations of scientific research could be compromised if economic efficiency and monetary returns on investment become dominant and that this could undermine science’s social, non-monetary functions. The NSF’s concerns about reliability and robustness of science can even be conceptualized within this context. If economic interests are primarily driving the research agenda of university scientists, then scientific reliability and robustness, let alone social equity issues, are no longer the primary concern.

Although Habermas’s depiction of the colonization of the lifeworld provides a useful starting point, it is not without its shortcomings. However, Nelson’s (2006) critique of Habermas’s framework directs us towards a strategy for countering science commercialization. She claims that Habermas offers an overly mechanistic, monolithic, and deterministic portrayal of the system-lifeworld relationship, which is accurate. However, Nelson (2006) is too dismissive of how influential the maximization-of-efficiency and return-on-investment trends have become in many aspects of social life, particularly in the economic realm. After all, it is widely recognized that publicly traded firms are obliged to maximize shareholder wealth and that the market punishes firms that fail to pursue this goal (McWilliams and Siegel 2001). Nevertheless, Nelson’s (2006) critique highlights pitfalls of neglecting the potential for human agency among university administrators and scientists, as well as industry actors. And she provides insights that could be useful when contemplating how one might begin to stimulate an ethical culture as a form of resistance in the face of colonization.

One source of resistance may be the science professions. University scientists are members of professional associations, just as lawyers, psychologists, physicians, and engineers are. Some university faculty may even be members of a trade professional association. The point I want to emphasize is that these professional associations play a role in establishing the moral and ethical standards for their professions. Abbott (1988, p. 8) defines professions as “exclusive occupational groups applying somewhat abstract knowledge to particular cases.” Furthermore, as Hughes (1963) emphasizes, the profession’s members judge the validity of that knowledge according to the criteria and standards established within that profession. And Abbott (1988) further clarifies that an important part of a profession is the capacity to control the application of that knowledge through the sanctioning of appropriate techniques. Moreover, he argues that, historically, those professions emerged to make “careers invulnerable to the instabilities of capitalist employment” (Abbott 1988, p. 132).

This discussion about professions is important because it highlights their emergence through efforts to generate and preserve non-market norms, even within a capitalist political economy. Moreover, the university is doubly significant because it is the place where many professions are housed (e.g., scientists) and it is the site where many of the basic standards for non-scientific professional knowledge and skills are taught to future professionals (e.g., lawyers and physicians) (Abbott 1988). In the case of various manifestations of the biophysical sciences, those future professionals may find employment in university and government (public sector) laboratories or in a private firm (private sector). However, wherever those scientists might work, they also are likely to be part of a professional association where they can share perspectives on abstract knowledge and the application of that knowledge. Furthermore, there is an assumption that the standards of the profession should hold in any given political or economic context. According to this perspective, commercialization might be deemed a threat to scientific professions because scientific results are judged increasingly by their economic value, and not necessarily by the standards of the scientific profession.

Recent efforts by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) serve as an illustration that some scientists recognize this threat. The IFT has over 17,000 food scientists as members, from universities, government, and industry. It claims its core mission is to “promote science, technology, and their applications,” which means that the organization and its membership are actively seeking to influence the food supply through scientific research and technology (see IFT’s 2014–2015 annual report). Perhaps more significantly, due to the commercialization of science, members in the IFT organization have become concerned enough about the quality of scientific research that they developed a “Code of Professional Conduct,” which was recently adopted by the IFT organization.1

Again, the point here is that university scientists belong to a profession that constitutes a distinct lifeworld within a capitalist political-economy. Since professions emerged as a kind of resistance to the market colonization of that lifeworld by establishing standards for knowledge and its applications, there is a precedent for conceptualizing those professions as locations of resistance to market colonization now. Efforts to foster that resistance might begin with inviting scientists to deliberate on the purpose of university science and whether that purpose should be directed at the public interest.

I would argue that Habermas’s re-articulation of Immanuel Kant’s approach to arriving at a categorical imperative offers a way to frame ethical deliberation on the purpose of the research university. Kant argued that an autonomous, rational person needs a way to discern what norms and values ought to be honored, which is what his categorical imperative accomplishes (Sandel 2009). Kant (1980, p. 14) asserted, “I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” Through this thought experiment, according to Kant, one can discern proper norms and values. A virtuous person is one who engages in this process of discernment and who subsequently accepts the duty to adhere to those norms and values.

The problem with Kant’s approach, however, is that it does not acknowledge the role of collective deliberation in creating and evaluating virtuous norms, values, and practices (Habermas 1991). Kant’s (1980, p. 15) insistence that moral deliberation be free of experience led him to rely on metaphysics and transcendent theology. Habermas’s theory of communicative reason and action offers a modified approach to moral reasoning. According to Habermas (1990, p. 72), we should restate Kant’s categorical imperative to reflect the social dimensions: “…I must submit my maxim to all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality. The emphasis shifts from what each can will without contradiction to be a general law to what all can will in agreement to be a universal norm.” This statement could become the foundation for members of science professions to evaluate the obligations they have to public-interest research and to society more generally.

The two questions that might be used to initiate ethical deliberation within the science professions are: (1) Can we will that commercial science should become an injunctive norm for university scientists? (2) Can we will that public-interest science should become an injunctive norm for university scientists? The answer to these questions could be complex. For example, there may be appropriate times and strategies for interactions with the private sector. The point, however, is that ethical deliberation can serve as the foundation for discerning the values, norms, and practices that should be honored within the university. It is important to clarify that these proper norms, values, and practices would not be seen as inherent or discovered. Rather, the virtuous scientist would be engaging in this communally deliberative process and then accepting the duty to adhere to the subsequent results of the process.


The social benefits of commercializing university science tend to be overstated while the detrimental impacts tend to be understated and even ignored. Furthermore, national and university policies are continuing to promote science commercialization through the monetization of the scientific rewards system in universities in the US and around the world. Critics of these trends call for universities and university scientists to resist; however, it is imperative to be aware of what is being asked of these universities and their scientists. The political-economic context of university science is coming to resemble that of the private sector, since the goals of enhancing economic efficiency and maximizing monetary returns on investment are more typical of the private sector than the public sector. Therefore, asking universities and university scientists to pursue a higher purpose, such as the public interest over private interests, requires ethical deliberation among university administrators and university scientists. However, scientists cannot make structural changes alone. They must reason and act collectively, and Habermas’s restating of Kant’s categorical imperative provides the foundation for collectively discerning the purpose of universities and university scientists. Establishing public forums for science professions to deliberate on the norms, values, and practices that they should honor might stimulate a collective reconsideration and reformation of science commercialization.

There is no guarantee that ethical deliberations among scientists will lead to an affirmation of public-interest research. However, the history of professions indicates a tendency to affirm standards of knowledge formation and practices that set them apart from the dominant capitalist political economy. Research universities and university scientists serve important social functions, including the formation of basic knowledge, solving problems that may not have a commercial application, training the next generation of scientists, and generating regulatory science that is free from commercial interest. Members of science professions are likely to acknowledge these functions and to want to uphold them. Therefore, I am assuming that scientists will agree collectively that the purpose of the university is consistent with public-interest science as a binding injunctive norm.

It is important to emphasize that the goal of this paper is not to pile expectations on university scientists to heroically resist science commercialization in the face of political, economic, and university pressures. Rather, the point is to begin a process that might lead to a reformation of national and university policies so that those policies would begin to honor the purpose of public-interest science.




Thank you to Lisa Heldke, William Lacy, Larry Busch, David Ervin, Rick Welsh, Jonathan Marks, Robert Chiles, Don Thompson, Raymond Jussaume, to participants in Penn State’s 2017 Social Thought Program, and to participants in the 2017 Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (especially Ian Merrell and Siobhan Maderson) for valuable feedback and insights on various drafts of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and EducationPennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

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