Academic Capture

How Big Tech’s support for Canadian academics and universities risks compromising the integrity and independence of research.




PRIVATE SUPPORT OF university-based research, through direct funding or other means, has long been framed as a welcome gesture of philanthropy. Only recently have observers begun to better understand and scrutinize the role that private financial partnerships with academics, researchers, and educational institutions play in contributing to the broader dynamics of regulatory capture.  

Given the highly specialized, R&D-driven orientation of most Big Tech companies, it is not surprising that they have aggressively sought partnerships with academics and public universities to further their technical knowledge and business goals. From the direct funding of research projects, chairs, and fellowships to their sponsorship of conferences and other high profile events, Big Tech has become adept at exercising what’s described as “soft power on campus”.

University-based academics and researchers are an integral part of civil society, whether in furnishing the verified research and data used to hold companies accountable for their activities, or in some cases themselves playing a more outspoken, activist role. Scientists and researchers are frequently called upon by policymakers and governmental oversight committees to provide objective analysis and commentary, or cited as experts in news articles on matters of public interest. Similar to how the “revolving door” encourages those in public service or regulatory roles to adopt the thinking and interests of industry, privately funded academics and their research can be used strategically to help frame the public discourse in ways that further industry interests.

Outside the doors of the academy, the research tables have become tilted in favour of Big Tech. The number of research positions within tech companies is only growing, while there are fewer and fewer university academic positions available. Often enough, relationships with academic institutions function as a tool for siphoning talent away from public universities, serving, in effect, as a direct, privileged line on recruitment. It helps that the average starting salary for an assistant professor at an American university is about $70,000, when an R&D position at a tech firm typically starts in the low six figures. These higher salaries also come with the promise of greater computing resources and research capacities.

Aside from tax write-offs and access to the research itself, which comes with its own set of concerns, there are key questions that need to be studied.

In what other ways do companies gain from these relationships? In what ways do they confer academic or scientific credibility upon the company in media and political discourse, as well as legitimacy with policymakers, at a time when such companies are being increasingly investigated by governments? Are there ways that the companies dictate the direction and parameters of research that have implications for, or may be at odds with, the public interest? Is there sufficient transparency in the terms of agreements between companies and researchers?

As a mechanism of regulatory capture, academic capture has been far less studied than the more familiar mechanism of the revolving door. Our research plans to address this shortfall by empirically identifying and tracking the funding of Canadian academics and their research, as well as the current and potential risks of such relationships, by the following companies: Alphabet (including Google and Sidewalk Labs), Amazon, Apple, Facebook (now Meta), Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, Netflix, Palantir, Starlink (including Tesla and Space X), TikTok, and Uber.





KEY READINGS


Nov-Dec 2021
The Steep Cost of Capture, Meredith Whittaker, Interactions, Volume 28, Issue 6, November

Whittaker is better placed than most to map the effects of academic capture in the American AI space. As faculty director of the AI Now Institute at New York University and policy advisor on AI to the Federal Trade Commission, she was also a former Google employee, founder of the firm’s Open Research Group, and key leader of the 2018 staff walkouts. Here, she takes a systematic and historical look at the Big Tech playbook that led to this “perilous moment” where strategic and collective intervention is urgently required.

“From industry-sponsored Ph.D. programs to initiatives that place tech-company offices literally in the middle of universities, to the National Science Foundation partnering with Amazon to define the parameters of ‘fairness’ in AI and awarding grants to those who meet their positivist criteria, we see myriad schemes to draw academia closer to tech companies. […] Dual-affiliated scholars draw a tech company salary, work closely with tech employees, and avail themselves of corporate research infrastructures, all while publishing research under a university imprimatur. Such arrangements help shield companies from accusations that they’re contributing to brain drain by hiring researchers away from universities.”


January 2021
Academic Capture: Private Funds + Public Interests, Vass Bednar, Regs to Riches blog

Bednar begins with the firing of leading AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru from her position at Google, over her criticism of the company’s own policies. She then expands out to look at the risks and impacts of Big Tech’s efforts at academic capture more broadly, and the implications for independent research in Canada.

“As a net tech importer, Canada could lead in the space with radical transparency and a preference for no-strings-attached funding that is met with less skepticism and more trust. We have an opportunity to set a clear and high standard here, with statements or contracts regarding independent research be it on or off campus. We can also explore more checks and balances; like mandating disclosures regarding the sources of research funding in a way that is mutually beneficial to both actors. The worst thing we could do is pretend that these tensions can’t, won’t, or doesn’t manifest here.”


June 2020
When Scholars Collaborate With Tech Companies, How Reliable Are the Findings?, Noam Scheiber, The New York Times

Scheiber reports on how Uber’s and Lyft’s collaboration with academic researchers may have skewed results that the companies have used to argue against lawsuits and proposed legislation over how it classifies workers and their pay, highlighting the risks of academic work “that relies on data controlled by companies tends to avoid negative findings.”

“Two prominent economists unaffiliated with the research team said the study had been rigorously executed, but second-guessed some of the researchers’ decisions. They also said the study reflected the limitations of research that seeks to assess the costs and benefits of prominent digital platforms — not just Uber and Lyft, but also giants like Amazon and Facebook.


December 2019
The Invention of Ethical AI: How Big Tech Manipulates Academia to Avoid Regulation, Rodrigo Ochigame, The Intercept

Based on his own experiences as an ethical AI researcher at MIT’s Media Lab, then under the now disgraced leadership of Joichi Ito, Ochigame examines how Big Tech’s partnerships with academics lend credibility to their calls for self-regulating when it comes to AI research and applications, rather than government regulation.

“The corporate lobby’s effort to shape academic research was extremely successful. There is now an enormous amount of work under the rubric of ‘AI ethics.’ To be fair, some of the research is useful and nuanced, especially in the humanities and social sciences. But the majority of well-funded work on ‘ethical AI’ is aligned with the tech lobby’s agenda: to voluntarily or moderately adjust, rather than legally restrict, the deployment of controversial technologies.”





ABOUT US


The Regulatory Capture Lab is a new collaboration between the Centre for Digital Rights and FRIENDS. Together we are building a clear, research-informed picture of how decision-making works in Canada, to document the crossover between public offices and corporate interests, and to stimulate debate about power and influence in Canadian digital policy. Contact us at info@regulatorycapturelab.ca.


            

Research support for this project was provided by students from McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program.

Graphic art by Atelier Michèle Champagne. Edit by No Media. Read our privacy policy.


ABOUT US


The Regulatory Capture Lab is a new collaboration between the Centre for Digital Rights and FRIENDS. Together we are building a clear, research-informed picture of how decision-making works in Canada, to document the crossover between public offices and corporate interests, and to stimulate debate about power and influence in Canadian digital policy.

Contact us at info@regulatorycapturelab.ca.








Research support for this project was provided by students from the McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy in Digital Society program.

Graphic art by Atelier Michèle Champagne. Edit by No Media. Read our privacy policy.