The commercialisation of knowledge: Challenges and opportunities
While commercialisation advances knowledge in some ways, it also hinders it. This is particularly true for the humanities, which are disappearing from universities under the burden of commercial utility.
This article was written in preparation for our round table on ‘End of Humanity(s)?’
Universities in North America and Europe have long been grappling with the commercialisation of the knowledge that they create. It has increasingly become the dominant narrative for knowledge transfer, whereby researchers sell their newly created knowledge to a private company as early as possible. While this process stops further research in the university, it does allow companies with the funding and resources to continue the research, even if not as originally intended. These companies then turn this knowledge into products for their own commercial benefit. But the public also benefits, it is said, who through commercial transactions are able to access the benefits of that knowledge. Nevertheless, many experts question the veracity of this narrative, in which the inventor, the company, and the public, all end up benefiting from the commercialisation of knowledge. They argue that it may be equally harmful, not only to the inventor and the public, but also to knowledge itself.
Commercialisation: opportunities and challenges
Commercialisation does create opportunities for knowledge. For some types of new knowledge, commercialisation is the best way to ensure that it reaches the public and advances society while also benefiting the creators of the new knowledge. Taken this way, commercialisation is a key mechanism to help knowledge have real-world impact. Litan et al. argue that the ultimate aim of scientific research is to improve the human condition, so aiding the transfer and commercialisation of knowledge serves the interests of not only the inventor but also society. The impacts of this commercialisation have been most palpable in the case of technology. Gulbranson and Audretsch highlight that modern society responds more to advances in technology than to basic science. The digital transformation of society is a crucial example, with Microsoft, Apple, and Google producing technologies that were at first glance received by people as lifestyle choices but really represent digital services that act as a ‘lifeline’. Services, such as a search engine or mobile broadband, not only created basic connectivity but also provided access to a host of other ‘services for society’, including health, education, and finance for the first time for many people. Beyond easier access to these services, the rise in connectivity also offers a range of other strong opportunities to society, including better sharing of information, greater political accountability, greater social activism, and stronger institutions of news and media. Commercialisation, particularly in the context of universities, has also allowed academics to financially benefit from their work and to also see their research advance more rapidly than would have been possible within the limited investments in universities.
Notwithstanding these social goods, there are also significant challenges. The debates in Europe and the US around the private ownership of publicly-funded innovations such as the Internet highlight how the monetisation of the Internet was not the way to deliver the social good of universal broadband access. It can also be felt in the context of hard-to-afford or debt-incurring education in prestigious universities, and the commodified provision of life-saving medical treatments in private healthcare systems across Europe and the US. The most recent example of the social harm commercialisation of knowledge can bring is the case of the COVID-19 vaccine. Intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines have meant that the global manufacture and distribution of vaccines needed to stop the pandemic is not possible. Nine out of ten people in most poor countries likely will not receive a vaccine this year. This has generated significant moral outrage. 175 former heads of state and Nobel laureates recently called on US President Biden to back a waiver on World Trade Organization (WTO) intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic to “expand global manufacturing capacity, unhindered by industry monopolies that are driving the dire supply shortages blocking vaccine access.” Signatories included former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and economist Joseph Stiglitz. A coalition of 250 organisations, including Amnesty International, Public Citizen, and Doctors Without Borders, also issued a similar plea to the WTO.
Commercialisation: a harm to moral progress?
Beyond its direct benefit or harm to society, commercialisation also has a transformative impact on knowledge itself. With universities in North America and Europe increasingly licensing their new knowledge to private companies, the knowledge that cannot be readily transferred from research to product, and therefore, does not offer clear commercial benefits, comes under fire. This is indeed the case, particularly in the case of the humanities. The humanities are increasingly being perceived to be less vital to society, and therefore, less eligible for investment than the fields that offer material and economic progress. Educational institutions increasingly recognise knowledge as a tool for economic productivity, and this does not bode well for the good of any society. This emphasis on material and economic progress makes the moral progress necessary for morally-grounded society impossible, as the American Muslim scholar Joseph Lumbard notes: “A society that mistakes material progress, economic progress, and technological progress for moral progress cannot but create monsters and monstrosities.” The instrumentalist, as opposed to moral, view of knowledge that commercialisation fosters not only threatens social good, but also invites us to reexamine whether, as historian David Edgerton argues, commercially-mediated transfer of knowledge really does create the social change we actually desire.
The economic and technological pressures of commercialisation and their harm to moral progress are exemplified in the challenges theological education faces across different religions. In the case of Christianity, for example, the commercial need to accredit online theological training has raised strong concerns about ministerial formation. In South Africa, the use of commercially-available courses on theological training proliferated during the 1990s and accelerated in recent years with the onset of online modes of teaching. As Kelebogile T. Resane notes, this has led to not only unreliable or even fraudulent Christian ministries being set up across the country but also the “presentation of the Biblical message either as a commodity for sale for material gain or as an object of investment for personal aggrandizement.” Drawing a parallel with 20th-century television evangelists such as Billy Graham, Kenneth Copeland, Oral Roberts, and Kenneth Hagin, Resane cites the cases of publically popular South African religious leaders such as Bishop Keith Hurrington and Archbishop Prof. Emanuel Ketsekile to highlight this concern. Both Hurrington and Ketsekile claim scholarship from fictitious or unaccredited institutions, and award doctorates “to many naïve pastors.”
Commercialisation: between the learner, learning, and knowledge
It can be argued that no matter what its outcomes, the commercialisation of knowledge fundamentally changes the relationships between the learner, learning, and knowledge. In The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity, Stephen J. Ball argues that the commodification of knowledge “de-socialises” these relationships. Instead of meaningfully engaging with students, teachers “perform” according to targets, indicators, and evaluations. As “performative” and “enterprising” workers, teachers are forced to set aside “personal beliefs and commitments and live an existence of calculation.” This, Ball concludes, leads to a loss of real relationships, particularly within universities. The resulting construction and maintenance of fabrications get in the way of ‘real’ academic work or ‘proper’ learning. If Ball is correct, then the humanities, and within it the study of theology and religion, have a bleak future in the midst of commercialisation. As Julia Reinhard Lupton argues, “at the heart of the humanities … lies a withdrawal from utility.” Universities need to be able to broker the relationships – between the learner, learning, and knowledge – that enable this pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
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