The Great Divide Between Industry and Academia

October 07, 2005
Derek Lowe discusses the love-hate relationship between academia and industry.
The first thing that I feel like saying to this professor is that Merck, which is indeed one of those Big Companies That Makes Money, presumably doesn't employ an army of expensive chemists and biologists for cosmetic reasons. So if you can't figure out why they've kept such people around for decades, perhaps there could be valid reasons that you haven't fully appreciated. It's a hypothesis worth considering, and that would be a higher-percentage move than assuming that the company must be so thickheaded that it hasn't yet figured out that it could fire everyone.
Don't neglect the comments. Sebastian Holsclaw says:
Even if it were true that all they did was pay off small companies--they provide the incentive for the small companies to do the research that they do. Dozens of small pharmaceutical research firms fail in San Diego every year. That is hundreds of millions of dollars that is just gone. The reason investors keep investing in them is the hope of a really big payoff if something useful comes out of the research. That payoff often comes in the form of a Merck or Pfizer buyout. The fact that there are strong enough incentives to do lots of research despite the low chance of a useful outcome on any given project is a really good thing. Even if all they did was provide that incentive (which is of course not all they do), it would be a good thing.
Owen comments: I'm interested in the interface between the publicly-funded, public good research done by academia and funded by the philanthropic foundation, the for-profit work of biotech and industry. How uneasy is that relationship? How much does scientific progress suffer as a result of commercially-driven secrecy (if at all)? Is the division of labor that most of the basic advances are made on a non-commercial basis by academics and others, and that most of the contribution of the large companies is clinical trials and commercialization of products? If there is purely academic research by the big companies, how constrained are the scientists in sharing what they find?


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