Before [the 1980 Bayh-Dole patent legislation], patenting was seen as an infringement of the market. Knowledge was a public good that should be available to all and, no one should have monopoly access to its revenues. That changed and today a patenting mania lies at the bottom of expanding industry-university collaboration, including some $500 million from British Petroleum (!) for research into non-fossil fuels at Berkeley (in partnership with the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). As leading public universities cashed in on their research so the government saw less need to pour funds into higher education, which only further intensified the commercialization of knowledge, with all sorts of implications for those disciplines that could not convert their knowledge into tangible assets. They were told they had to find alumni or corporate donors to support their enterprise! The university came to look more and more like a corporation….
Here’s the key phrase: “convert their knowledge into tangible assets.” Commodification – turning something into an entity that can be bought and sold – is a risky process. A commodity should be a tangible object that is actually capable of being bought and sold, and the process of commodifying intangibles consequently seems pretty dangerous. Take love, for instance. Most of us would probably agree that love isn’t the sort of thing that should be bought and sold; that’s just not how love works. In fact, it’s unclear whether love can be bought and sold at all. If you saw a business that offered unconditional love at the rate of $5 a day, you might question what it is that you’re getting for your money. The business might provide you with displays of love during that day, but it probably wouldn’t be the real thing. Commodifying love would seriously distort its true nature.
I have similar reservations when it comes to knowledge. Knowledge is intangible, and it doesn’t resemble physical commodities in any way that I can think of, but in universities and in the broader world (think intellectual property), it has come to be treated as something that’s bought and sold. But why should this be the case? Shouldn’t knowledge simply be a public good? And when knowledge becomes commoditized, what are we really getting when we pay for it? By making knowledge into something that can be “converted into tangible assets,” it seems to me that the type of knowledge university researchers will pursue will be drastically narrowed. They will research and publish in the way that earns them the most money, not necessarily in the way that best helps us learn about our world. They will be driven by short-term incentives of profit and survival rather than the desire to truly understand the world and to communicate that understanding to their students.
As Burawoy highlights, the commodification of knowledge isn’t just a problem with universities; it reflects a broader problem with patents and intellectual property more generally. But that simply highlights that severity of the problem we face and the necessity of changing the way we think about knowledge.
(Photo by ozvoldjj used under a Creative Commons license.)