Harvard To Prioritize Private Funding for Science

Given looming federal cuts, University emphasizes partnerships with industry

Harvard University has begun to focus more on partnerships with private industry to fund science research, as the federal budget is expected to remain flat or decline in the coming years.

Harvard received about 6 percent of its operating revenue from federal agency grants in 2010, of which a large majority went toward science. But with the federal government facing looming deficits and the Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, the University must prepare for a potential decline in those funds, according to University Provost Steven E. Hyman.

“While we continue to advocate for government funding of science...taking a clear eyed look at the domestic discretionary budget, we have to accelerate our attempts to diversify funding sources for scientific endeavors,” Hyman said in an interview Monday. “It’s important that we develop effective models of industrial sponsorship.”

The University announced earlier this year that it will partner with Sanofi-Aventis, a multinational pharmaceutical company based in Paris, to sponsor scientific research. That agreement will serve as a potential model for Harvard as it seeks to expand funding from and collaborations with the private sector, Hyman said.

With an anticipated decline in federal funding, the University plans to seek more support for science research from private firms, relationships that are not new to the University but could potentially be expanded.

The University has, for example, a $20 million deal in place with the German chemical company BASF to support research in areas that include the applied sciences, engineering, and chemical and systems biology.

Under the terms of the agreement with Sanofi-Aventis, the firm will provide grants to fund projects proposed by Harvard researchers, and the firm has the right to review the results of the funded projects.

But academic collaborations with private firms also create the possibility that a company’s business interests will impinge on researchers’ academic freedom and lead to an emphasis on research that can be quickly monetized, Hyman acknowledged.

Any future agreement will be structured to preserve an emphasis on basic science and the type of open-ended, prolonged research conducted under normal funding models, Hyman said.

“It is important to emphasize that the research projects that are sponsored by industry are always initiated and led by our faculty—we don’t do contract research or research for hire—and we are always mindful of our paramount obligation to promote and preserve academic freedom, to disseminate new knowledge, which means the freedom to publish, and to ensure that our research is pursued without any outside direction or interference,” said Isaac T. Kohlberg, the University’s chief technology development officer, in a statement.

Kohlberg heads an office with a long history of licensing technologies developed at Harvard and arranging collaborations with the private sector.

While funding agreements with the private sector might help cover funding shortfalls from the federal government, Hyman said government support is imperative and cannot be replaced with private funding.

“As important as these new funding models may become, they cannot substitute for government support of basic research,” he said.

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at wwhite@fas.harvard.edu.

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