Friday, May 29, 2009

Solutions for the Higher Education Financial Quagmire

This has not been a good year for higher education. Economic downturns traditionally benefit the educational community by providing a surge of displaced workers to fill the classrooms, but the severity of the current economic situation actually has had a negative effect on campuses across the U.S. While people are returning to higher education, the financial mess on Wall Street has crippled the financial backbone of academia. Across the country, state budgets are in crisis.

In my own backyard, for example, the University System of North Carolina experienced a 5.8 percent reduction in funding in 2008-2009, and the North Carolina state budget is facing a $3.4 billion shortfall for 2009-2010. In addition to budget cuts, the General Assembly enacted a 7 percent reversion in the budgets of higher education — the new name for supplemental budget cuts.

On a more individual basis, since this recession directly involves the financial sector, people are having a hard time securing the funding to return to school, and scholarships and grants are reducing their support as their endowments struggle. Somehow, we have become accustomed to this type of news, with many wondering how any good can come out of this situation.

The Bright Side of Budget Woes
The budgetary quagmire facing academia often is viewed as an obstacle to program and curriculum development. But this actually may be the event that finally catalyzes the blending of higher education and industry.

Across academia there always has been a rather small minority that actively has promoted and fostered direct interactions with the corporate world, not just in the form of grants, but in direct collaborations in research activities and the training of skilled workers to satisfy the needs of industry. Even though the current economic woes also are influencing the private sector, the time may be ideal for a revolution in the way that academia and industry (including big pharma) interact.

We are beginning to see that happen already. At Appalachian State, my home institution, the faculty is actively encouraged to develop partnerships with both the private and government sectors. Within the past few years, long-standing ultra-conservative policies regarding copyrights and ownership of patents have been discarded in favor of more liberal policies that promote technology transfer and cooperative agreements with industry.

The Ethics of Industry-Academic Collaborations
We do, however, need to get a handle on the ethics of these new relationships. In countless committees on college campuses, faculty and administrators are questioning whether these new relationships are in the best interests of the students. As is always the case, a few bad cases can upset years of progress. An excellent example of how ethical problems can cause havoc in an academic program is at Harvard Medical School. A March 2 article in The New York Times outlines Harvard's problems with both faculty and administrative personnel receiving financial support for their research from the pharmaceutical industry. In this case, individuals at Harvard are accused of placing their personal interests over those of professional interests. Even though the faculty and administration at Harvard had disclosed that they were working as consultants to private industry, the students' perception was that the faculty was using these relationships to influence the students' views on certain drugs. While the matter is still being debated at Harvard, it does show that potential problems exist.

Of course, the overall issue is one of transparency. Most of us recognize that transparency is the key to an effective workplace. When all issues are on the table and open to discussion, people feel more comfortable with their environment and their leaders. This type of change has been slow to develop on college campuses, where the authoritarian role of professors and administrators resembles a form of medieval caste system. Most institutions, including Harvard, fail the transparency test — but not all. As pointed out in the article, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Columbia have developed more transparent reporting systems and have received high grades for their achievements.

Promoting Collaborations Through Peer Review
There is another solution, and one that is deeply embedded in the scientific process. The scientific community, both academic and private, prides itself on the peer review process. With regards to research, review by one's peers is considered to be the benchmark of ensuring academic integrity.

What is needed in order to ensure that academic-industry relationships are handled ethically is an adaptation of the peer review process in academic-biopharma partnerships. Simply put, faculty must disclose their relationships to a community of peers, including representatives from industry. Since we are dealing with finances, these peer review committees should be inter-institutional, further compelling an environment of transparency in higher education.

This process will ensure that transparency is maintained, and it will promote the interactions of academia and big pharma. Furthermore, it will help encourage the interaction of academia with the biopharma community, which may result in an influx of much-needed capital into an increasingly bankrupt educational system. These are the types of partnerships that higher education, the industry, and even more importantly, the students, desperately need.

This article was first published in BioWorld Perspectives (May 28, 2009 vol 3 #21) by AHC Media and reproduced here by permission.

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