Should academic research be more like business?

Sept. 1, 1999
For many years, an argument has raged about the "business" of university research. Many academics feel that university research is a protected activity necessary for the advancement of scholarship.

For many years, an argument has raged about the "business" of university research. Many academics feel that university research is a protected activity necessary for the advancement of scholarship.

Others, notably those in funding organizations and business sponsors, feel that research should be treated as a business and weighed accordingly. The debate has tended to be highly anecdotal, and feelings run high on both sides of the argument. But now, a group of Boston University researchers has attempted to quantify academic research (Nature, 29 July 1999, p. 433). Their intriguing results will add further fuel to the debate.

Vasiliki Plerou and his colleagues, using extensive mathematical analysis, found that the growth rates of university research groups are quantitatively similar to those of business firms. They claim that, in the same way that market forces operate in business activities, the peer-review system of academic research appears to bolster competition among scientists. A conclusion that one may draw from this, say the researchers, is that there is no need to make university research more business-oriented than it is already. According to Plerou and his associates, university research is sufficiently businesslike today.

Similarities in Canada and Britain

Most of Plerou's analysis was done with data from the science and engineering departments of a large sample of US universities, but the researchers also analyzed more-limited data from Canadian and British universities and found similar correlations. I don't have the space here or the qualifications to review the math but the work seems quite rigorous. It was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a primary source of funds for basic scientific research in the USA. There's no word as to whether the NSF found this particular piece of research to be properly businesslike. However, Boston University is one of the more business-oriented research universities, which may explain why this group of researchers attempted to compare academia with business.

The Boston University researchers are appropriately cautious in drawing broad conclusions from their work. They suggest that the combination of peer review and government direction of academic research produces outcomes similar to those induced by market forces. They hypothesize that the analog of peer-review quality control in academia may be consumer evaluation and the analog of government direction may be product regulation. Those findings seem intuitively correct although I'd have to say that the forces of supply and demand in business exert a greater force and act more rapidly than the forces of peer review. Perhaps that's a subject for several business school theses.

In the same issue of Nature, two European researchers, Henk F. Moed and Marc Luwel, point out that some important differences may exist in European universities partly because they are more dependent on funding based on the numbers of enrolled students. Thus, small departments often stay small while larger ones continue to grow. In the USA, say Moed and Luwel, the funding of research is much more heavily based on short-term research grants. This often results in a time horizon of five years or less, typical of many business organizations. The writers argue that, to make fundamental contributions to science, many research programs have to continue for much longer than the average research grant. They point out that this emphasis on short-term objectives leads to a decrease in publication output per full-time equivalent spent on research.

Productivity is difficult to assess

Of course, the "output" of fundamental research is notoriously difficult to measure, and university researchers howl loudly at suggestions of productivity analysis. Nonetheless, targeted research programs, such as the Human Genome Project, are becoming increasingly important. Time and expenditure constraints in aca demic work often resemble the budgetary controls that exist in industrial research and development. If university research is becoming more businesslike, then, I would say, that will be beneficial to both the funding organizations and to the recipients of those funds. Competition in business results in marked benefits for suppliers and consumers. So if university research is really becoming more accountable, that is no bad thing, in my view.

As one might expect, this isn't the end of the debate. Both sets of researchers point out that further research is needed. Business plans, anyone?

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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