University Research: Academic Freedom – Open Scientific Communication

Advance the time honored debates surrounding university-based research, i.e., academic freedom and open scientific communication, not to re-litigate the relevance of either in their conventional contexts which, unfortunately are not-frequently, still framed as imposing controls vs. no controls.

Instead, this post respectfully seeks to  encourage parties to consider the prudence of continuing to adhere to those time-honored conventions…without due regard for – factoring the intertwined business interests, global complexities, predatorial vulnerabilities, and risks to the products of university research.  Most all-of-which are now embedded in research and technology development environments globally, which function at keystroke speeds, but which, customary attribution and intellectual property rights are routinely…

  • outpaced and circumvented by a growing global cadre of independent, state sponsored, and/or legacy free bad actors linked to increasingly sophisticated data mining technologies that enable – facilitate asset-research compromises, value – competitive advantage dilution, misappropriation, and infringement to routinely occur.

Academic freedom and open scientific communication relative to university research…are deeply rooted and time-honored principles held throughout academia globally which can still spark heated and polarizing debates anywhere – anytime controls or impediments to either are envisioned, proposed, or execution is attempted. There are, of course, obvious exceptions.

National debates about applying certain controls to university research – scientific communication emerged initially…at least in modern times, and on a national scale in the U.S., in 1945, and again, in the early 1980’s. In each instance, the National Academies, i.e., National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine played roles in bringing parties together to mitigate the polarizing debates surrounding academic freedom.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, those debates emerged again…this time initiated by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies serving as the convener and (debate) facilitator.

In most instances in which research controls vs. open scientific communication (ala academic freedom) have been formally debated in a national forum…persons representing the U.S. government have injected the politically expedient and influential message of ‘national security’ for which there is a timely logic that should not be wholly dismissed, rather should be duly considered relative to the overall discussion.  Yes, times,  technology, and terrorism are now routine components to this multi-hundred year debate.

Consistently, the U.S. government’s chief concern…has been that, because of their access to technical material and innovation, certain foreign nations, ala economic and competitive advantage adversaries, can – are gaining military-defense and commercial advantages, which, upon operationalization, can (does, will) undermine U.S. national security, as well as diminish the U.S.’s ability to compete effectively in international trade.

Of course, as in previous occasions, injecting ‘national security’ into the debate, sets a portentous and difficult bar – reality to refute…insofar as the prudency of advocating (proposing – seeking) some type-level of ‘covenant’ to the communication and dissemination of scientific research. In many respects, such advocacy has elevated following passage of the Economic Espionage Act in 1996, i.e., Pub.L. 104–294, 110 Stat. 3488.

For readers unfamiliar with these issues and subsequent debates…there are multiple realities worthy of mentioning, one of which is that a significant portion of research conducted in universities originates, at least initially, through variations of collaboration and/or consortiums between a university and corporate sponsors.

To reiterate, the premise underlying this post…is to advance the conventional two-sided debate about university research and academic freedom, beyond whether controls vs. no controls are now prudent, if not necessary. The reasons for this, through my lens, is that these issues should entail additional and more complex dimensions relative to risk that university-based research are consistently vulnerable to compromised, i.e.,

1. Decisions about when, where, and the circumstances in which research work products are disseminated have become blurred, making it less difficult to recognize risk relative to findings-products being compromised and operationalized at relatively no cost to economic, competitive advantage, and defense- national security adversaries.

2. Knowledge-based (intangible) assets, i.e., intellectual, structural, and relationship capital have outpaced tangible (physical) assets as the dominant sources of company value, revenue, wealth creation, sustainability, and commercial application. In fact, it is now an economic fact that 80+% of most companies’ value and sources of revenue, and competitiveness globally, lie in – emerge directly from intangible, not tangible assets. (Brookings Institution’s Intangibles Project and Intangible Assets: Management, Measurement, Reporting by Dr. Baruch Lev

3. Increasingly sophisticated and predatorial data mining technologies, variously linked to and/or functionally aligned with global commercial (business, competitor) intelligence operations now render researcher’s ideas and innovation vulnerable (at risk) to compromise, value – competitive advantage dilution, undermining, and/or infringement at the very earliest stages of development, well before conventional applications for intellectual property enforcement, i.e., patents, may even be considered.

Risk realities of these magnitudes become even more relevant…as the importance for sustaining control, use, and ownership of scientific – technological (research) work products rise, i.e., throughout their respective economic, functionality, and materiality life cycles. Therefore, less reliance on the (mistaken) assumption that conventional intellectual property enforcements, i.e., patents particularly, constitute a legitimate – realistic (global) deterrent in today’s threat-risk inherent environments embedded with legacy free players operating in a significant percentage of the 190+ countries – signatories to the United Nations.

Obviously, the fact that university-based research is of interest to and specifically targeted by global intelligence collection entities is not new…but the keystroke speed and commercialization scale which it routinely occurs today, is new, and more relevant than ever before to act.

So, in-light-of each of the above evidence-based perspectives…there are some in university-government-industry research arenas who, for good reason, remain skeptical of any intervention that may alter the principles of academic freedom.  Skepticism, in this context, is a often a prelude for dismissing the risks posed to their research and/or innovation, and in some instances felt to be preludes to curtailing academic freedom in the name of national security.  Too, those holding such views, principled as they were in less troubled times when risk by – from economic, competitive advantage, and defense-military adversaries was not significant, presume any imposition of control would keep beneficial scientific study and findings out of (open source) public domain.  As a long time former academic myself, I routinely experienced proponents of open source research say…

  • in today’s technologically advanced (university-based) R&D environments, there is little need for anyone, be they economic – competitive advantage adversaries or organized-sophisticated bad actors, to mount – engage in a particularly surreptitious, clandestine, or otherwise disguise their intent to target, access, collect, and perhaps sell scientific data and intellectual-structural capital.
  • it is largely unnecessary today, because such assets are often readily accessible, sometimes merely for the asking, or through commercial (publicly available, open) data bases and/or media sources. Or, interested parties can merely wait until the results/findings are fully presented, explained, and debated at a professional meeting, posted on a researchers’ website, or published in a professional journal. (Michael D. Moberly, originally written in 1998 with updates in 2018)

Many, if not most universities claim a societal mission – obligation to ensure…the distribution of creativity, knowledge, and information – findings of research conducted by their faculty, students, and staff.  Admittedly, progress in science is often premised on the free and open exchange of information in its entirety. (Glickman, Maurice. Institutional Openness and Individual Faculty Academic Freedom. Academe. Sept-Oct 1986 and the Bayh-Dole Act,

Advocates for sustaining a culture of open scientific collegial communication and collaboration…dutifully claim doing so lays important-necessary groundwork for progress through competitive cooperation, ala, let the best research rise to the top. Too, proponents suggest, doing this, forms foundations for a seamless transfer of ideas among generations of scientists and citizens. It is true however, the countless numbers of research scientists I have engaged ‘for this research’ during the past 20+ years,  also may convey an obligation withhold – omit certain (key) information and/or processes in some circumstances as a means to safeguard the personal privacy of experimentation methodology, the identities of research subjects, and/or to ensure that a finding is indeed replicable, before making it available to the public through an open source.

With some obvious and notable exceptions…there is seldom any debate that the findings of scientific research, produce-deliver, on-the-whole, value to the world.  Scientific tradition and the laws of intellectual property have variously evolved to the point of recognizing – distinguishing public and private interests and access, such as the designation and safeguarding of certain scientific information (intellectual, structural capital) as constituting trade secrets and/or possessing other private value to sustain and encourage entrepreneurism, while keeping the flow of information sufficiently open and free to promote (additional, other) discoveries in the public interest.

Still, the traditions – conventions of open scientific research and dissemination are variously and occasionally challenged...prompted, in some instances, by changes in technology, changes in the structure of country economies, and by greater ease in pursuing – securing global collaborations with those of differing allegiances and business culture value systems.

Information technologies of course, makes this all possible and probable…that is, for information to flow more freely than ever before and at keystroke speed, opening – creating avenues and opportunities for collaboration that were far less available and slower to emerge, a mere generation ago.

Against this backdrop of new, real, and asymmetric risks…which indeed target conventional (open) scientific communication, there are other trends emerging to cause reflection throughout scientific communicaties, among them being the (a.) increasing intimacy of private sector’s – industry’s role and involvement in academic research, (b.) increasingly competitive and predatorial environments for conducting research,  securing sufficient funding, and career advancement, and (c.) myriad legal and regulatory concerns. (Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, Preserving Scientific Openness in a Competitive World)

So, it may still be, ‘without an appreciation for the larger economic and adversary shifts’…which have and continue to restructure societies globally, we rely and act on assumptions and conventions which are, in numerous circumstances, less relevant. So, one outcome of being out of touch with present-day and horizonal realities and risks, we are, in many instances, committing ourselves to paths of failure as more risk unfolds in the future.” James Naisbitt, Megatrends, but, heavily adapted by Michael D. Moberly.

Michael D. Moberly April 25, 2018 St. Louis [email protected] ‘The Business Intangible Asset Blog’ since May 2006 where one’s attention span, intangibles embedded in research, and solutions converge. 

Readers are respectfully invited to examine other papers, blog posts, and books I have produced and published at particularly ‘Safeguarding Intangible Assets’ and ‘Organizational Resilience for Intangible Assets’.


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