The case of Paolo Macchiarini involved the deaths of multiple patients and several instances of research fraud, and has exposed the misdeeds of a single professor. But it also demonstrates the risks of academic capitalism: a global trend that turns universities into businesses. In this respect, the story has wider lessons for us all.
As academic capitalism spreads, universities abandon traditional meritocratic and collegial governance to hunt money, prestige and a stronger brand. In Sweden, this shift has been especially profound: since the 1980s, the university system has been deregulated, and its core principles gradually replaced by management practices from the corporate world. Government research policy over the past decade has further pushed universities to centralize their strategic management and increase their international visibility. Major strategic funding programmes included one to recruit international star scientists.
An investigation into the Macchiarini scandal, led by a former president of the Supreme Administrative Court of Sweden, Sten Heckscher, delivered its report last month, and puts some blame on this “new orientation of research policy”. There is now an elevated risk that fraud is not properly detected and that ethically doubtful research is allowed to continue, notes the report, because new policy incentives cloud the judgement of academic leaders.