The Seedy Underbelly of Industry-Academia Collaborations: Part 1- Silicon Valley

“Academia is to knowledge what prostitution is to love; close enough on the surface but, to the non-sucker, not exactly the same thing.”

- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

Industry and Academia for long have had a consumer-producer relationship. The universities provide talented, trained students for the industry to gainfully employ; the consumer provides its feedback to the producer, and the loop continues. The benefits of such an arrangement can be broadly summarized in terms of society, university and the industry. The society benefits from productively utilizing the intellect of its youth, the universities earn precious funding dollars in the age of budget cuts on education spending, the company reduces the time it takes in moving from lab to market with the help of the researchers and graduates it employs.

The increased collaboration has also insidiously developed a quid pro quo relationship of a rather disturbing nature. It is heavily detrimental to the largest stakeholders, the global community at large; and aims to safeguard the interests of their largest shareholders, the investors with a significant monetary interest in the sustenance of the business.

The Wall Street Journal, on July 11, reported that over the past decade, Google had helped finance hundreds of research papers to defend against regulatory challenges of its market dominance, paying stipends of $5,000 to $400,000. The report further revealed that some researchers share their publication and let Google give suggestions. Google lawyers then sent these academic papers to the FTC, when it was deliberating if it was going to charge Google with Anti-trust offenses. No charges were framed after a landmark agreement in which Google agreed to make changes to its business practices to give its competitors access to standard-essential patents and provide more flexibility to advertisers to use rival search engines. Similarly, the FCC imposed a slap-on-the-wrist fine of $25,000 on Google for “willfully stonewalling” an investigation of how Street View cars had downloaded personal information from individuals over Wi-Fi.

The WSJ further reported that, sometimes, Google put together detailed “wish lists” for academic papers and “then they searched for willing authors,” citing a former Google employee and a former Google lobbyist.

The influence that Google wields by its strategy of using paid puff pieces masquerading as research papers can be gauged by the fact that 58 individuals who worked with Google assumed positions with the Obama administration and 183 from Washington made way to Google. Google executives, the Campaign for Accountability suggests, meet in the White House on an average, more than once in a week.

Silicon Valley, Bloomberg reported last year, to have outspent Wall Street on lobbying. The Valley spent twice as much as the big firms on Wall Street is particularly eyebrow raising, given the fact that they remain unregulated and have cases opened in Europe for anti-trust activities.

Google was issued a record-breaking $2.7 billion antitrust fine by the EU recently and cases against Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft are currently underway.

The lack of scrutiny or healthy skepticism towards such influence of Silicon Valley on public policy could also stem from a carefully curated halo effect. There might be a millennial perception of tech companies “fighting the good fight” against “the system”. What gets often overlooked is the fact that these aren’t international philanthropic entities, righting the wrongs; but self-serving corporations, slaves to the financial bottom line.

This isn’t to say that all of Silicon Valley has become a cartel up to no good, but is to reiterate and re-frame the context that these are global Goliaths with barely any oversight and massive influence on public policy. Their core objective is to make profit and not sound public policy for the Average Joe and Jane tech consumers.

The complicity of academia in this exercise; just in pursuit of a few funding dollars is especially deplorable. It is highly imperative that universities draft their agreements with Industry with extra due-diligence and caution. The agreements to funding must be devoid of all strings that can come in way of objective research and publishing the findings in an unbiased manner.

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