The Moral Limits of the Market: Science Commercialization and Religious Traditions

Abstract

Entrepreneurs of contested commodities often face stakeholders engaged in market excluding boundary work driven by ethical considerations. For example, the conversion of academic scientific knowledge into technologies that can be owned and sold (i.e., science commercialization) is a growing global trend and key stakeholders have different ethical responses to this contested commodity. Commercialization of science can be viewed as a good thing because people believe it bolsters economic growth and broadly benefits society. Others view it as bad because they believe it discourages basic research that ought to be freely shared without concern for profit. Taking a descriptive sociological approach, we posit that the stance of a religious tradition toward capitalism will help shape individual scientists’ views on science commercialization and test whether the religious tradition of scientists correlates with their attitude toward the commercialization of science. To maximize variance on the religious tradition dimension, we analyze pooled data from a cross-national survey of university biologists and physicists encompassing France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, UK and the USA. We indeed find religious tradition differences. Hindus and scientists with no religious tradition are more likely to agree that commercialization of science “harms a university’s commitment to knowledge production” than Protestants. We end with a discussion on business ethics and the moral limits of the market as well as implications for entrepreneurs of contested commodities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The original wording is as follows: “engagement in commercial activities has the potential to confuse [sic] university’s central commitment to knowledge production” (p. 320).

  2. 2.

    Answer categories for Hong Kong and Taiwan respondents refer to “God/gods” to account for belief in multiple gods.

  3. 3.

    The UK and India survey instruments do not directly measure Tenure. We develop proxies for both based on the respondents’ self-reported professional position. For the UK, Tenure = 1 for Senior Lecturers, Readers, and Professors. In India, Tenure = 1 for Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Professors.

  4. 4.

    The following Stata code was used: svyset DepartmentIndicatorVariable [pw = weight].

  5. 5.

    Additional bivariate analysis reveals this is merely an artifact of the tendency of some scientists to refuse to answer both questions that we use to operationalize our key variables. In other words, of the 296 scientists we initially dropped because they refused to answer the question about science commercialization, 288 also refused to answer the religious tradition question.

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Funding

Data collection for this paper was funded by the Templeton World Charity Foundation, Religion among Scientists in International Context Study TWCF0033/AB14, Elaine Howard Ecklund PI, Kirstin R. W. Matthews and Steven Lewis, Co-PIs.

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Correspondence to Jared L. Peifer.

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Peifer, J.L., Johnson, D.R. & Ecklund, E.H. The Moral Limits of the Market: Science Commercialization and Religious Traditions. J Bus Ethics 157, 183–197 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3718-9

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Keywords

  • Academic capitalism
  • Contested commodity
  • Religion