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Collaborations in Microbiome Research: An Academic Scientist’s Dilemma

Businessman from industry holds academic ideas

Knowledge is the key to innovation. When companies and universities collaborate to push the frontiers of knowledge, they become a powerful engine for innovation and economic growth (Santoro & Betts, 2002). Academic researchers are increasingly encouraged to collaborate with the industry, as more and more funding agencies stimulate research that will be done in collaboration with industry and the public sector, in order to create and disseminate new knowledge.

Among the most important factors for success in industry-academic collaborations, are the willingness to understand and respect each others objectives, balancing of trust and contracting, mutual trust and understanding, and ground rules (Pronk et al., 2015; Blomqvist et al., 2005), but these factors may create a moral conflict. Let me explain the dilemma I have, being an academic researcher in social sciences.

Most importantly, the term collaboration (i.e. the process of two or more people or organisations working together to realise or achieve something successfully) implies you are actually working together. But think: does the definition of science actually allow for this?

On one hand, science needs the industry, and industry needs science to fuel progress and innovation in the field. Researchers are being confronted with increasingly complex problems, for which they need to collaborate in order to progress. Such collaborations do not necessarily only involve other scientists, but may indeed involve the industry and the consumer. The other way around, the industry can help scientists to disseminate their knowledge for practical use. I myself for example, would like to learn more about the development of products based on my scientific experience and research, which may stimulate practical use of my research, and provide me with new questions that need answers.

On the other hand, empirical science must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being tested for its validity by other researchers under the same conditions (Popper, 2002), which implies objective, careful, and systematic procedures. In order to ensure objectivity, which is a tricky thing in social sciences already, one would want to keep business and science as separated as possible; the aim to drive economic growth, does not exactly contribute to objectivity.

Knowledge can be transformed into products and processes and, as such, exploited commercially (Mueller, 2006), which may be seen as a means of knowledge dissemination, but should the academic social scientist actually aim for this? How does one deal with such a conflict of interest? The answer to that, I do not know. Contracting may provide a tool, but may undermine the objectives of the academic researcher. Respecting each others objectives is crucial, but what if those objectives are conflicting?

When a company approaches a researcher with an idea, a question, or a product, and they agree to ‘collaborate’, should they actually work together? That is, during the collection, and later evaluation and interpretion, of data, one would ideally want to refrain from any interaction. But can you then still call this ‘collaborating’? In addition, and even more importantly, this strongly contradicts the idea of openness in science (see also Fabrizio & Di Minin, 2008).

The next question is: if one benefits from the outcomes of a study in any way, how does one ensure its objectivity – can we still call it ‘science’?

To put things in a more positive perspective, however, rather than assessing science only in light of moral principles, it may be more appropriate to assess it in light of actual practice.

Researchers need to consider a number of values and interests, may they be personal, societal, industrial, environmental, and so on and so forth. After all, standards of moral behaviour and philosophical scientific views may conflict with effective science (Woodward & Goodstein, 1996). A key factor in this is of course the interests of science itself, but that can and will not, in all practicality, form the only objective. Truth is, these moral, philosophical, and practical objectives will often conflict with each other and there may be no solution except to accept that they conflict and give none absolute priority (Köbben, 2003).

  1. Blomqvist, K., Hurmelinna, P., & Seppänen, R. (2005). Playing the collaboration game right—balancing trust and contracting. Technovation, 25(5), 497-504.
  2. Fabrizio, K. R., & Di Minin, A. (2008). Commercializing the laboratory: Faculty patenting and the open science environment. Research Policy, 37(5), 914-931.
  3. Köbben, A.J.F. (2003), Het gevecht met de engel. Over verheffende en minder verheffende aspecten van het wetenschapsbedrijf, Amsterdam: Mets & Schilt.
  4. Mueller, P. (2006). Exploring the knowledge filter: How entrepreneurship and university–industry relationships drive economic growth. Research policy, 35(10), 1499-1508.
  5. Popper, Karl R. (2002) [1959]. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, NY: Routledge Classics. ISBN 0-415-27844-9.
  6. Pronk, J. T., Lee, S. Y., Lievense, J., Pierce, J., Palsson, B., Uhlen, M., & Nielsen, J. (2015). How to set up collaborations between academia and industrial biotech companies. Nature biotechnology, 33(3), 237-240.
  7. Santoro, M. D., & Betts, S. C. (2002). Making Industry—University Partnerships Work. Research-Technology Management, 45(3), 42-46.
  8. Woodward, J. & D. Goodstein (1996), Conduct, Misconduct and the Structure of Science. American Scientist, 84, 479-490.

Laura Steenbergen

Laura Steenbergen
is a Postdoc in the Cognitive Psychology department of Leiden University, investigating the relationship between food supplements, dietary habits and cognition. Laura recently chaired a track at the 4th Microbiome R&D and Business Collaboration Forum: Europe.

Do you face the same dilemma? Share your thoughts using the box below.

One Response to “Collaborations in Microbiome Research: An Academic Scientist’s Dilemma”

  1. I agree with your findings, especially regarding the case study of the South African academics behavior, who, many times rejected the collaboration with industries or grass root innovators. One of the causes of rejection was the inability of the project managers to design an objective framework around this collaboration. The effective collaboration between academics and industries will bring a high impact and an accelerated growth valued more than billions of dollars of investment.


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