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Clean partnerships are crucial (Editorial)

by | Jan 1, 2022

The University of Maryland found itself in relatively hot water in 2016 when an expert panel on academic research lambasted a university study which claimed that a new brand of fortified chocolate milk not only helped athletes but improved cognitive and motor function in those who had suffered concussions.

It was a bold claim, and the study had been paid for, in part, by Fluid Motion, a Maryland company that created the milk brand Fifth Quarter Fresh. The university distributed press releases touting the study’s findings (including an apparent endorsement by the professor who oversaw the research) well before results had been peer-reviewed or published. It was a fundamental no-no in academic circles, and the university ended up returning the money — about $20,000 — as well as an additional $200,000 that had been provided by Allied Milk Producers, a Johnstown, Pa., cooperative.

It was a small scandal, quickly resolved, but one that illustrated a big risk when public research institutions partner with the business community. It’s also worth remembering as the agricultural industry and its essential partners in higher education increasingly rely on that community to support its science. Since 2010, corporations have given at least $170 million to university ag programs, according to an NPR report earlier this month. Such donations are becoming more important to ag research as state legislatures cut funding for colleges and universities. Agricultural companies, hoping to associate their products with the trusted imprimatur of a top university, are more than happy to help.

The University of Illinois recently learned how such partnerships go wrong. One of its top donors is Monsanto, and in 2018, a university professor publicly criticized the ag giant’s dicamba herbicide. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto was displeased. An e-mail exchange published by Harvest Public Media and Investigate Midwest showed a Monsanto executive telling the university that he hated “to see the U of I take these positions.”

Bayer, which owns Monsanto, conceded to NPR that it “should have done a better job communicating.”

The exchange raised questions about how much benefactors can influence research — or discourage it — and how this influence affects the integrity of such research in the eyes of consumers. No matter how one feels about criticism of dicamba, anything that creates doubt for consumers hurts not only ag companies and university researchers but farmers who may deal with the ground-level fallout of such controversies and lack the defensive resources of big business and educational institutions.

Colleges and universities across the Delmarva region depend on their corporate partners to fund fellowships, research projects, events and even building programs. (A simple Google search of the name of a regional college or university with the word “DuPont” is a telling illustration.) These bonds are likely to strengthen as U.S. higher education faces new pressures such as declining enrollments from domestic and international students.

To avoid unnecessary controversy, colleges and universities must maintain clearly stated boundaries between themselves and such partners and prioritize transparency in these relationships. If not, they risk the outrage of not only fellow academics and media figures, but their consumers as well. Farmers, whose lives can be easily complicated by such ire, won’t be thrilled about it either.

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