The public-private relationship in research: conflict or opportunity?


  • Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs; that’s innovation
  • Federal funding agencies (like Genome Canada), and their partners, adhere to strict standards in scientific research, ethics, transparency in engaging key stakeholders and in data/knowledge sharing and outreach
  • The private sector can play a vital role as a partner in research, ensuring that innovative solutions to our most pressing problems make it to the people that need them the most

Ah, the halcyon days of public sector research. I loved it. It was a time and place in my career when reading and writing were prioritized tasks; where traveling the world, sharing and exchanging knowledge, speaking at conferences and collaborative publishing were valued currencies of the profession. It was a world where you could pop down the hall, poke your head into a colleague’s office and say, “How about we knock off for a bit, grab a coffee and have a chat about how busy we are?” (‘hat tip’ to @Sh#tAcademicsSay for that last witty bit – I adapted it).

I jest. Rest assured, public sector researchers are some of the hardest working people I know.

Research objectives need to be linked to markets and society’s needs: that’s innovation

Academic research is an honorable career endeavor. There is nothing more gratifying than feeling like you are directing your work for the greater public good. During my “tenure” as a public sector researcher, I got to work with the best-of-the-best; people from public research institutes and universities all over the world. I regularly interacted with farmers, with grower organizations, as well as consumers and other stakeholders representing local, national and international NGOs and governments. And, yes, I connected with individuals from the private sector. But it seems that these public-private partnerships are under attack even though they are governed by high scientific and ethical standards.

Forgive me as I step back into a personal narrative again… My research, for the most part, involved the examination of how networks of scientists are structured, how they perform, and what – in this wonderful world of public sector research – qualifies as innovative performance and valuable outcomes for society. I also dipped my research toe into the sea of literature and research into public-private partnerships. You could say that, collectively, all of this was in my ‘wheelhouse’. Much of my work between 2001 and 2014 was funded through Genome Canada (specifically, through Genome Canada’s GE3LS program).

So, what does a public-private partnerships, under the auspices of Genome Canada, look like? Genome Canada is a not-for-profit organization that funds and supports genomics and genomic-based applied research and technologies in Canada. It is an agency with the goal to “catalyze the creation of economic and social benefits for Canada”. And, yes, this means ensuring that the public sector connects and/or partners with appropriate stakeholders, including the private sector.

In the context of agricultural research, the relationship between the public sector and the private sector is an important one. Why? Well, think about it. If you want to ensure that high-quality and relevant agricultural research is conducted in our academic institutions, research objectives need to be linked to market and societal needs. You won’t see any universities doing back-door deals to sell seeds. And I certainly don’t want my tax dollar going towards those kinds of activities in post-secondary institutions.


Federal funding agencies have a vested interest in ensuring that the best research is conducted so that we can all benefit. They want the private sector to be part of the research and development process. What this means for society is that the research is being used to address real-world problems and has impact for people more broadly.  We call that innovation.

“If innovation is the fuel for the regions to reinvent their economies, higher education is a critical source of that fuel.” Mark Drabenstott (2005) (cited in: Bruininks 2005)

Stakeholder engagement and funding

Partnership structures vary from case to case.  It all depends upon research context and which organizations are involved. The Genome Canada funding model, in particular, requires that a portion of the requested funding for eligible costs for any given project be obtained through co-funding from other sources (matching initiatives are not uncommon in public funding models). In fact, Genome Canada will not release funds to a project until there is a firm commitment for co-funding for eligible costs of the project.

“…Genome Canada funds will not be released to a project until there is a firm commitment for at least 75% of the co-funding for eligible costs of the project and a well-developed and feasible plan for securing the remaining 25% of co-funding.”

Sources include (but are not limited to): companies, industry consortia, trust funds, foundations, charities, government agencies/departments. Funds from the private sector to universities often come in the form of ‘unrestricted grants’ wherein funds are freely given with no strings attached.

And there’s no subterfuge here. The identity of partnering organizations, funding sources and the affiliated collaborative arrangements are all public knowledge.

Yeah, but what about ethics?

Good question. Here’s the deal. All Genome Canada-funded projects need to have appropriate ethics approval. Universities are bound by tri-council agreements and cannot allow any research to carry on that does not have formal approval. And this kind of ethics approval does not happen overnight. It is controlled by the universities involved in the research. The real challenge here is that not all institutions are built the same; they have different processes and guidelines around ethics.  So, sometimes it takes a LONG time for these multi-actor projects to move forward, no matter who is involved. It is important to reiterate that Genome Canada funding will NOT flow until the collective ethics approval is in place. Period.


Simply stated, there are lots of boxes to tick off when setting up collaborative research projects.

Leadership and Accountability

Projects are monitored closely both scientifically (in terms of meeting milestones) and financially (to ensure that funds are being spent on eligible costs).  Continued monitoring also includes ongoing assessments that the project is being carried out to the highest ethical standards. Responsibility and leadership of Genome Canada funded projects always fall under the intellectual direction of a publicly-funded, faculty person. That leader ensures that:

  • Funded projects, and affiliated researchers, share what they learn with a broader audience. This is known as “scientific outreach
  • Data and resources are shared with the wider scientific community as soon as possible
  • Results are published. Publications are viewed as an important output of Genome Canada Funded research projects: “…free online access to these publications is paramount…[and] as soon as possible…”

While Genome Canada ‘sports’ its own kind of partnering/funding model, it appears to operate in a similar manner to agencies in the U.S. See this series of blog posts (here, here, and here) by weed scientist Andrew Kniss from the University of Wyoming.


Public-private partnerships in research are a GOOD thing!

A few years ago, I conducted a study on how university researchers connect with other stakeholders in the agriculture systems. As part of this work, I traveled to Australia and interviewed a number of people in government, academia and the private sector.  One of the most compelling statements came from the Chief Economist for the Department of Food and Agriculture in Western Australia.

“The likelihood for increased public funding in agriculture is close to zero…so the future of agriculture – whether agriculture likes it or not – is going to be more about strategic partnerships.”

Along with farmers, grower groups and other stakeholders, funding agencies and universities play important roles  in facilitating the collaborative development and transfer of knowledge for the public good.

“As a public-sector research scientist, it was expected and a requirement of my position … that I collaborate with and solicit the engagement of those working in my field of expertise…to ensure the public benefits from the best and most complete understanding of research and emerging commercial developments of any technology.” – Dr. Bruce Chassy (2015), Academics Review

To be competitive as a country and to continue to provide for people here in Canada and around the world, cultivating and maintaining relationships across the entire agricultural value chain is the right thing to do. During my entire tenure as a public sector researcher, I was never once “sanctioned” by private sector partners (or other stakeholders) in any way. No one tried to delay, postpone, or otherwise influence the publication of study results. Genome Canada would not support this kind of censorship. It would no way serve the public good.

In a time of declining investment in public sector education and research, if we want good quality and relevant research to reach the end-user (farmers and society more broadly) we need to have the right experts involved that are backed with sufficient funding dollars.  Independent academic experts need resources to be able to lead and carry out high quality scientific research. And they also need to be supported (in different ways) by organizations that are in a position to ensure that research and technological outcomes reach the people and societies that can benefit most from them.

PostScript: Genome Canada is now investing in the GAPP program which aims to foster a more productive interface between Academia and Users.  Check it out, especially if you are a fan of cheese and salmon like I am! J

Update (related articles):

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

(2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” Genetic Expert News Service. September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“.  The GRIST. September 9.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Select References:

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC). Available online at:

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Available online at Academics Review at: (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”. Available online at:

Genome Canada. (2014). Guidelines for Funding Research Projects. Available online at: June.

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation Deficit. Report/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available online at: April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three part series starting with “On Transparency, Intimidation, and being called a Shill.” Blog posts in Weed Control Freaks. August.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Karen Dewar (Genome Canada) and Kari Doersken (Genome Prairie) for their insights and editorial suggestions on this blog post.

2 thoughts on “The public-private relationship in research: conflict or opportunity?

  1. Pingback: FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word. | Camistry

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