Commercialization of Science

Neither science based industry nor university involvement in commercially relevant science is a new phenomenon. In certain sectors, US firms employed scientists in the late nineteenth century, and examples of university-industry collaboration in the United States can be found in the early twentieth century. That said, the advent of the biotechnology industry in the late 1970s and 1980s prompted sustained policy and scholarly attention to the place of science in the economy.

The standard recent history of the commercialization of science highlights several pieces of US legislation that analysts suggest altered the landscape in which science is undertaken. Most prominent among these is the Bayh Dole Act of 1980. A central aim of this law was to encourage university-industry collaboration by permitting universities and small businesses to retain title to inventions produced with federal funding. Indeed, at the center of virtually all discussions of the commodification of science is the blurring boundary between academia and industry and the possibilities for transforming scientific research into marketable products.

Scholarly discussion of the commercialization of academic science can be divided into two waves. Early work focused on the threat to traditional academic norms of autonomy and openness posed by industry support for academic research and the array of university-industry relationships that flourished with the development of the biotechnology industry. Much of the early research was anecdotal and highlighted egregious cases of conflict of interest and industry pressure to keep academic research findings secret. During this period and subsequently, researchers have undertaken surveys in an effort to capture the extent to which traditional academic norms have been eroded by industry involvement in the university. This research has found academic scientists torn by conflicting  pressures,  but  also  shows  that many factors besides connections to industry prompt scientists to restrict the flow of information (Blumenthal et al. 1986; Campbell et al. 2002).

If early research on the place of the academy in the knowledge economy focused on erosion of norms, the second wave has been more interested in understanding the social organization of the knowledge economy and the place of the university in it. Some such work explores net works of interdependence between industry and academic science (Powell 1998). Other scholar ship suggests the emergence of a new mode of knowledge production in academia and industry that tends to be collaborative, non hierarchical, interdisciplinary, and organized through work teams and networks (Gibbons et al. 1994). Still other work sees a movement toward what the proponents call ”academic capitalism” in which those university fields, departments, and faculty members who are closer to the market have greater access to resources and status than those further from the market (Slaughter & Leslie 1997). Finally, theorists of ”asymmetrical convergence” (Kleinman & Vallas 2001) contend that a process is underway in which the norms and practices characteristic of industry are increasingly, if unevenly, found in academia, while academic norms are in increasing and surprising ways found in science based industry.


  1. Blumenthal, D., Gluck, M., Louis, K., Stoto, A., & Wise, D. (1986) University Industry Research Relations in Biotechnology: Implications for the University. Science 232 (June 13): 1361-6.
  2. Campbell, E. G., Clarridge, B. R., Gokhale, M., Birenbaum, L., Hilgartner, S., Holtzman, N. A., & Blumenthal, D. (2002) Data Withholding in Academic Genetics: Evidence from a National Survey. Journal of the American Medical Association 287(4): 473-80.
  3. Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P., & Trow, M. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  4. Kleinman, D. L. & Vallas, S. P. (2001) Science, Capitalism, and the Rise of the Knowledge Worker: The Changing Structure of Knowledge Production in the United States. Theory and Society 30: 451-92.
  5. Powell, W. W. (1998) Learning from Collaboration: Knowledge and Networks in the Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industries. California Management Review 40(1): 228-40.
  6. Slaughter, S. & Leslie, L. L. (1997) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

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