The scientific risks of professors holding shares in companies

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Translating research funded by public money into something profitable for society should be one of the objectives of researchers. Even in the case of pursuing knowledge in itself, laudable as the act can be, it should be put to use by allowing others to build upon it.

Sometimes, research can be translated to something more actionable, that gives raise to the creation of products, and perhaps companies. However, researchers from public institutions, such as professors, should refrain from engaging in commercial activities.

Researchers are under continuous scrutiny, and there should be no place for conflicts of interest.

As soon as a researcher has a commercial interest in a company, their entire research agenda can be put into questioning. Are they attending a conference on taxpayers' money to advertise a product? Are they honest about results or just hide those who could damage the reputation of their spin off?

These doubts become more pressing in grant calls, where the same professor is applying for funds at the same time their company is receiving funds for being part of a project. This patterns, ever more common, should be reviewed, disclosed, and put under scrutiny.

The real danger is to cast a shadow of doubt in a climate that can no longer distinguish science from pseudoscience.

Attacks ad-hominem are fallacious, but effective, and some aspects of them could be easily prevented by limiting the direct involvement on both sides of the equation. If a company draws money from public funds (for instance by selling an instrument to a researcher) and the researcher, in turn, gets paid by the company, there are many question that can be raised.

Leveraging companies to increase the researcher's profile can be accepted, but that is different from a direct involvement.

Clear divisions of concerns are paramount to keep the integrity of researchers, and how society perceives their work.


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Aquiles Carattino
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