UT’s private partnerships leave STEM students in dark

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Photo Credit: Mel Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

UT makes breakthrough discoveries everyday. However, a delicate system of privacy and funding between public universities and the private sector has put transparency of the involvement of private companies under the microscope.

To bolster the caliber of scientific research conducted at UT, the university has encouraged private-public partnerships for research. One of the largest research partnerships the university has is with pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.  In 2015, the UT System announced an agreement to accept up to $2.4 million annually from Sanofi to fund biomedical research. As part of its deal with the UT System, Sanofi would have priority access to the findings of the research it funded. 

The lack of clarity into what rights Sanofi has over the research it funds raises concerns over the amount of academic freedom that researchers have in a privately-funded lab because there aren’t clear distinctions on which entity chooses how the research is portrayed. Researchers often don’t know all of the legal details of the industry-backed research they are involved in.

The growing influence of private companies in public research has blurred the distinction over who has rights to the work conducted in a lab. For example, non-disclosure agreements often allow for the company to have the first rights to the research conducted, placing limitations on what researchers are allowed say about their experiences. Sometimes, private companies can choose to the way the research is portrayed. These examples demonstrate the importance for students to understand the scope of influence that private companies have on their work. There isn’t a way to know how this issue is influencing UT research. Access to this information is often limited, highlighting issues with transparency with the degree of  company influence. 

A hurdle in creating a more robust understanding of the legal nuance of lab work is the difficulty in obtaining information. While trying to access information on UT’s partnership with Sanofi, I struggled to find any documentation of its progress. Essentially, all I could access was an application to receive funding from the company’s university program, in addition to pages detailing the company’s dedication to innovation. It isn’t unusual for information on funding to be difficult to access. In fact, only one university, the University of Michigan, maintains a public database of how its research is funded. Public access to this information, and its influence, is greatly limited in scope. 

Andrea Gore, a professor in the College of Pharmacy, explained that there are mechanisms to prevent a funding source from manipulating results. There are protections against researchers picking and choosing the data that best supports their predictions through the use of a blinding method. While Dr. Gore reassured me that the process can’t be manipulated at the whims of a private company, we still don’t know what kinds of data private companies own. The rights to data still puts the power in the hands of private companies, instead of the researchers themselves. 

With external influence from private companies, issues in research can be more complicated. The legal playing field in research should be cleared from confusion. 

Krishnan is a computer science freshman from Plano.