Tag Archives: commercialization of university science



Cover of the 2007 autobiography by James E. Stowers with Jack Jonathan. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, and available from many booksellers on the internet. (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Cover of the 2007 autobiography by James E. Stowers with Jack Jonathan. Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, and available from many booksellers on the internet. (http://dr-monsrs.net)


The life of a major benefactor to biomedical research, James E. Stowers, Jr. (1924-2014), was briefly introduced in the previous article (see: “Part I” ).  I have conjectured there that Jim Stowers must have understood exactly what are the very biggest problems and impediments for research in modern universities.  The Stowers Institute for Medical Research (see:  http://www.stowers.org/ ) precludes those destructive problems and represents a new model to better organize the funding and operations of scientific research at universities.  Part II now examines in more detail the differences between research centers at universities and the Stowers Institute.  I particularly hope that science faculty and administrators at universities will learn about and discuss this new model.

Major differences for science operations between universities and the Stowers Institute. 

The organization of financial support for scientific research at the Stowers Institute differs dramatically from that at universities in the US.  Universities now view science and research only as a business enterprise that is a good means to increase their financial income (i.e., from research grant awards).  This very widespread policy is so counterproductive for research progress that some even have concluded that university science must be dying (e.g., see: “Could Science and Research now be Dying?” and “Science has been Murdered in the United States, as Proclaimed by Kevin Ryan and Paul Craig Roberts” ).  Below are given the chief reasons why universities are so extensively  different from the Stowers Institute.

The number one reason why science in academia is so very unlike that at the Stowers Institute is that universities directly insist that faculty scientists rent laboratory space and support all expenses for their investigations by acquiring research grants.  For universities, faculty scientists now are only a means to the end of increasing their profits (see: “Money now is Everything in Scientific Research at Universities” ); the science faculty presently is forced to spend too much time and emotional energy on trying to acquire more research grant awards, instead of actually doing experiments to produce more new results.  The Stowers Institute replaces research grants by the very large  endowment from Jim Stowers and his wife, Virginia; this endowment is purposefully arranged to continue generating new funds that will be used for future research expenses.

The second reason is that advances in basic research now are downplayed by the funding agencies and by universities, due to its greater distance from generating new products and financial rewards.  Universities and the research grant system give much emphasis to applied research and commercial involvements, since those produce income  more readily.  The Stowers Institute specifically targets basic research, which is the forerunner for all applied research.

A third reason is that the research grant system does not provide much direct support for experimental projects needing 10-20 years to complete.  The most significant questions for research are very large and complex, so answering them simply cannot be accomplished with only the usual 3-5 years of supported research study; getting a research grant renewed always is uncertain, even for famous faculty scientists.  This time limitation discourages scientists from studying the most important research questions. At the Stowers Institute, projects on large research questions are able to be undertaken.

The fourth reason is that the Stowers Institute employs research scientists using contract renewals instead of the traditional tenure system found in universities.  Nowadays, the main way to get tenured in university science departments is to be successful at acquiring research grants; the tenure system mostly counts dollars and differs greatly from the ongoing evaluation of research quality utilized at the Stowers Institute.  Thus, universities actually are rewarding their science faculty for business skills rather than rewarding them for research breakthroughs and science progress.

A fifth reason is that the intellectual atmosphere at the Stowers Institute is much freer and more encouraging of creativity, curiosity, innovation, and interdisciplinary studies than is found at modern universities.  Business is not the endpoint of science; at the Stowers Institute, the openly sought endpoint is research excellence.

What are the effects of these differences upon science and research? 

For today’s universities, science is just a business and their faculty scientists are businessmen and businesswomen.  Their pursuit of money fundamentally changes and distorts the true aim of scientific research.  The chief target of science faculty is no longer to discover new knowledge and increase understanding.  Instead, daily life for many university scientists involves the hyper-competition for research grants, which wastes both time and money, and, makes it very difficult to trust any fellow faculty scientists for advice  and collaborations (see: “All about Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ).  Accordingly, science at universities now is distorted, degenerated, and perverted; this extensive decay subverts science and research at universities.

Turning university research into a commercial activity distorts the traditional aims of science, and increases the corruption of scientists there (see: “Why is It so very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ).  Basic research remains as important as it always has been, and should not be repressed in favor of applied research.  The Stowers Institute recognizes these values and succeeds in pursuing excellence in biomedical science; its success seems to be directly due to the philosophy and organization instituted by its founder and directors.

The policies and organization that Jim Stowers initiated clearly go against all the serious problems for science at universities.  His distinctive design emphasizes using and encouraging creativity, exploration of new ideas by innovative research, vigorous collaborations, and much hard work; this atmosphere aims to result in research breakthroughs and encourages new concepts in basic science.  Jim Stowers and co-organizers clearly have shown how this idealistic atmosphere can be accomplished in today’s world.  It is noteworthy that some large pharmaceutical firms endow their own research institutes quite similarly to what has been done for the Stowers Institute.

Is this huge difference only a question of money? 

Of course, many will say that the donation of a billion dollars would let their university activate enlightened policies for its science.  I disagree, and believe that money alone will not remedy the negative aspects of current university science!  Also needed are wholesale changes in administrative policies, independent leadership, organization, philosophy, working atmosphere, and, much less dedication to commercialization.  All of these are essential!  Although making these changes would rescue university science from its present debilitation, it seems unlikely that such will be undertaken.

Any excuse by universities that they do not have such large funds does not explain why the huge endowments already in-hand at some universities are not spent for the support of scientific research and researchers in a manner analogous to the Stowers Institute.  Instead, these very large funds are used to try to further increase the financial income and profits of academic institutions (e.g., all sorts of entertaining amusements on and off campus, flashy brochures and other publicity,  programs for visiting prospective students and parents, public courses and lectures, travel programs, solicitation of donations, sports activities and athletic contests, television specials, etc.).

Why cannot university science departments mimic the model of the Stowers Institute, and thereby free themselves from their major problems? 

If it is not only a question of money, then there must be something else that impedes adopting the Stowers Institute as a model for conducting good scientific research.  Opinions for identifying this hidden  factor will differ, but I see the actual cause as being the commercialization of science at universities (see: “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” ).  This commercialization changes the whole nature of academic science and research.  The research grant system was intended to enable scientific research, not to change and distort it.  Universities were supposed to produce new knowledge and concepts, to teach, and to investigate the truth, not to become financial centers.  All these ideals have changed so greatly at universities that good scientific research now is hindered and foundering.  The actual priorities are quite different from the needed priorities; until these are changed, faculty scientists cannot hope to escape from their enslavement by the research grant system.

Concluding remarks. 

The Stowers Institute for Medical Research stands as a very successful new model for promoting research advances and science progress.  The big difference to science that Jim and Virginia Stowers have made in the US can and should be copied by universities to reorganize and better foster their high quality research.  This large change in priorities and operations need not be done all at once (i.e., simultaneously for all science departments); it could start with one science department and then expand to others over a 10-year period.  The payoff to universities for removing the restrictions and distortions imposed by viewing scientific research only as a commercial business enterprise, will be a substantial elevation of the quality and vigor of their science activities, and, a more reliable future input of income.

The success of the Stowers Institute dramatically proves that science does not need to be harnessed and hobbled by the research grant system!  Bypassing the grave current problems at universities stemming from the research grant system will reduce or remove the vicious hyper-competition for research grant awards that badly distorts their science, and will increase job satisfaction for the science faculty.  The benefits shown by this new model give some hope that university science need not continue to decay and degenerate until it actually dies (see: “Could Science and Research now be Dying?” ).



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All Is Money in University Science  (dr-monsrs.net)
All  Is  Money  in  University  Science     (dr-monsrs.net)

            Scientific research in recent times certainly is very costly (see my earlier post on “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” in the Money & Grants category).  Everything in a university research laboratory is quite expensive and costs keep rising each year.  Even such common inexpensive items as paper towels, phone calls, xerographic copies, and keys to lab rooms need to be paid for at many universities.  To handle all these expenses, faculty scientists must apply for a research grant, obtain an award, and then work hard to later get it renewed.  Unless a faculty member is working at a small undergraduate college, it simply is not possible to conduct research using only internal funds and undergraduate volunteer lab workers.  Without having laboratory co-workers, research comes to a screeching halt whenever the faculty member must be out of the lab while teaching, attending a committee meeting, eating lunch in a cafeteria, or going to see the dentist.  In addition to paying salaries for postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and graduate students, faculty scientists must buy research supplies and equipment, get broken instruments repaired, and pay for many other research expenses (e.g., business travel, costs of publication, use of special research facilities on- and off-campus, etc.).  Thus, to conduct scientific research in a university, it is fundamentally necessary to obtain and maintain external research funding; without a research grant, laboratory research projects in universities now are nearly impossible.


            Although the federal government each year thankfully provides many billions of dollars to support experimental studies, the present research grant system in the US is not able to fund all the good proposals submitted by faculty scientists in universities.  Of those overjoyed applicants meriting an award, many receive only part of their requested budget.  The U.S. National Science Foundation, a very large federal agency offering research grants in nearly all branches of science and engineering, reports awarding research funds to only around 28% of the many thousands of investigators applying for research support each year [1]. 


            Today, the professional reputation of individual faculty scientists depends mostly on the total number of dollars brought in by their research grant award(s) each year.  It also is true that different universities compare their reputation for quality in education and scholarly prestige primarily on the basis of the annual total amount of external research grant awards generated by their faculty scientists.  Many universities seeking to elevate their financial profits from research grants now urge their science faculty to try to obtain a second or third external award (i.e., for a related or unrelated project); universities also can increase their profits from research grant awards simply by hiring more science faculty. 


            Failure to get a research grant renewed is no longer unusual, due to the ever-increasing large number of doctoral scientists vigorously competing for new and renewal funding.  Any such failure means a rapid loss of assigned laboratory space, loss of graduate students working with the faculty member, a diminished professional reputation, and the necessity to henceforth spend all of one’s time trying to get re-funded.  Although non-renewed faculty scientists can continue researching and publishing using supplies at hand, such activity usually declines to some small level within about one year of not being funded.  This unwelcome failure is a disaster that often causes a midcareer crisis (e.g., denial of promotion to tenured rank); having a second research grant does provide some welcome protection in this distressing situation.  


            Each and every faculty scientist is competing against each and every other scientist for a cut of the government pie.  While ordinary competition generally has good effects upon human activities, this most prominent of all science faculty efforts is so extensive and generates such high pressures that it must be termed a “hyper-competition”.  The hyper-competition for research grant awards downgrades collegiality, subverts collaborations, and encourages corruption; each of these has very destructive effects on the research enterprise.  Applying for a research grant always is very stressful; for each renewal application (i.e., after 3-5 years of supported research work), one must compete with a larger number of new and renewal applicants than was the case for the previous  application.  Since the consequences of dealing with the research grant system are so very important for the career progress of any faculty scientist, one might wonder why graduate students in modern science are not being required to also receive an MBA degree, in addition to their Ph.D.?  


There is an increasing tendency for faculty scientists to form research groups, ranging from 3 to over 100 individuals.  Joining a small research group means that the failure of one group member to get a renewal application funded does not either kill anyone within the group or stop the entire project from continuing.  Giant research groups typically are headed by a king or queen scientist, and can have their own building; these giant groups automatically provide more brains, more hands, more research grant money (from awards to multiple associated individuals), and more lab space than any individual scientist or small group can obtain.  In the large associations, group-think typically can become the usual condition; in such cases, the role of each individual doctoral scientist in the group often devolves into serving only as a highly educated technician, with little need for individual input, creative new ideas, or self-development.  Today’s research scientists who work as individual researchers in academia know they have a fragile status in the hyper-competition for research grants, and usually are extremely careful to select a niche project where there is little likelihood of competing with any giant research group; that mistake would be the kiss-of-death.  Although the federal granting agencies do currently endeavor to give initial awards for 3 years to many newly-appointed science faculty, they also seem to favor the funding of very large research groups; this is readily understandable, since such awards usually provide these agencies with a much firmer likelihood that the proposed studies will be completed on time, and, the anticipated research results will be found and published (i.e., because the proposed experiments actually have already been completed!).  


Inevitably, the former prominence of individual research scientists becomes diminished by any policies favoring the formation and operation of very large research groups.  The acknowledged curiosity and creative initiatives of individual researchers have been the main source for new ideas, new concepts, and new directions in science.  Basic research is the necessary progenitor of all the advanced technology arising in the modern world.  Both the granting agencies and the academic institutions should change their priorities and policies so as to increase and encourage, rather than decrease and discourage, the vital activity of individuals (i.e., young basic scientists) who contribute so importantly to research progress.  When basic research is de-emphasized or disfavored, so too is creativity in science also being diminished.


             Another negative aspect of the enlarged importance of money for today’s scientific research is the commercialization of experimental studies in modern universities.  Commercialism is widely accepted as the primary driver of research and development within industry; currently, it is being extended and expanded into all university research efforts (see my earlier post on “What is the Very Biggest Problem for Science Today?” in the Big Problems category).  Basic science thereby is increasingly diminished, and many efforts are being targeted toward some commercial development or industrial goal.  That scenario refuses to recognize the proven history that both applied research and engineering developments almost always follow from one or more preceding very basic experimental studies; those basic investigations typically have no practical usage foreseen at the time of their publication.  Many detailed examples, ranging from the transistor [e.g., 2] to paternity testing based on DNA technology with the polymerase chain reaction [e.g., 3,4], show that although some highly imaginative or theoretical idea for a new device or process might have stimulated much interest, very important commercial products only arise much later after the initial basic results are modified and developed by many applied research and engineering efforts. 


            Scientific research at universities now is only a business activity. have seen this perverse situation in person during my own career experiences, and believe that these problems and issues with money and university profits now have changed the very nature of being an academic scientist.  I can only conclude that money today is just about everything for scientific research at modern universities.  This new emphasis creates many secondary problems for science progress and puts many roadblocks in the way of individual research scientists.  The traditional goal of scientific research is to find more new knowledge, not to acquire more and more money.  Counting the number of dollars in research grants cannot be a valid and meaningful measure of the professional status and value of individual faculty scientists.  Readers should know that I am certainly not the only scientist to state all these views with dismay (e.g., A. Kuszewski, 2010.  What happened to creativity in science?  Available on the internet at:  http://www.science20.com/print/72577 ). 


[1]   National Science Foundation, 2013.  About funding.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp . 

[2]   Mullis, K.B., 1987.  Conversation with John Bardeen.  Available on the internet at:

http://www.karymullis.com/pdf/interview-jbardeen.pdf/ .

[3]  Universal Genetics DNA Testing Laboratory, 2013.  Paternity DNA test.  Available on the

internet at: http://www.dnatestingforpaternity.com/paternity-test.html .

[4]   Ingenetix, 2013.  Paternity testing.  Available on the internet at: 




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