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Looking Beyond The Business Card

By Ben Hamm

Aug 5, 2013


Minute Read


COMPASS needed to investigate how they might contribute at the boundary of science and business, so naturally they needed someone who knew about synergy – an MBA intern! As a master’s candidate in environmental sciences and business management, I felt well positioned to help COMPASS investigate what they’ve been hearing for awhile now – an unmet need at the intersection of science and business.

But over the course of more than 40 interviews with thinkers in nonprofits, government, journalism, and the private sector, I discovered a cultural divide among scientists themselves – between academics and their counterparts in industry. (Note: for the sake of brevity I’m going to call this latter group, “commercial scientists,” although I’ve heard they don’t care for the term. If you’re reading this on a company computer, I ask your indulgence.)

While there’s plenty of cross-pollination between university and commercial scientists on topics like chemistry, geology, and medicine, it seems that communication grows thinner in more interdisciplinary and holistic fields like ecology and climate. If this is true, it points to many missed opportunities for both groups to learn from one another.

My investigation underscored what COMPASS was already anticipating – how much the corporate world could benefit from academia’s understanding of natural capital and systems thinking. Competitive pressures have rendered much of commercial science narrowly focused and siloed, and corporations have need of the integrated, synthetic thinking housed in the academic environmental sciences.

But, perhaps more surprisingly, my interviews also highlighted a considerable opportunity for insights to flow in the other direction – academics can learn a great deal from commercial scientists. Corporate data collection protocols and analytical frameworks are often highly advanced, and commercial scientists author powerful intellectual innovations.  Researchers within the reinsurance industry, for instance, have dramatically advanced the science of catastrophic risk modeling. Sissel Waage, Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR), told me that academics who attend BSR events are constantly surprised at the sophistication of scientists that work in the corporate sector.

There are some significant cultural barriers that must first be overcome, however, before commercial and academic science can more fully connect. It seems that much of this division is structural and rather inevitable: Academics and commercial scientists operate in very different institutional habitats, and their cultures differ accordingly. Some interviewees told me that when the scientific conversation moves onto controversial, high stakes topics, these contrasts become more apparent and can even lead to perceptions among academics that their commercial brethren lack integrity.

Simon Bryceson, a consultant for corporations facing public relations crises, suggested that beleaguered corporate science teams can fall into what he called “internal rational lockstep” because of their need to maintain group cohesion in the face of outside criticism.  This, he suggested, leads to a defensiveness and insularity that can separate commercial scientists from the academic community.  On the other hand, commercial scientists that I spoke to characterized some of their academic counterparts as ideologues that don’t know how to check their politics at the door.

Bryceson didn’t seem to think academics were helping the situation either.  He suggested that the scientific community has developed what amounts to a “caste system,” in which commercial scientists are considered inferior to “pure” academic scientists. “The pure scientist looks at the commercial scientist and says, ‘The work you’re doing is directed by what is profitable, and that is not the orientation of science which should focus on things like the joy of discovery, etc.,’” he said. “We’ve got to find a way that academic scientists do not make commercial scientists believe that they are seen as intellectually and morally inferior.”

This perspective was – as one might expect – not shared by everyone I interviewed.  Neil Hawkins, Vice President of Sustainability at Dow Chemical and the architect of perhaps the most innovative corporate-NGO sustainability partnership in history, saw things very differently.  He characterized the relationship between academia and industry as “99 percent collegial and collaborative, and maybe 1 percent contentious.” (He pointed out that some Dow scientists are also adjunct faculty at several leading research universities.)  That “contentious 1 percent,” however, might well be precisely the place where the most important debates occur.

Dow’s work with scientists at The Nature Conservancy – precisely on the fraught “1 percent” issues of big business and the environment ­­– is powerfully advancing the science of ecosystem services and green infrastructure in both the corporate and the academic worlds.  A key multiplier of the project’s impact is the commitment of both partners to make their research public, a level of transparency that far too seldom occurs in corporate sustainability efforts.

If a corporation and an NGO can step outside of their comfort zones for the sake of advancing science, sustainability, and value creation, academics can do no less. Nor should they want to, given the wealth of data, equipment, and experience that corporate partners can bring to the table.  Many institutional collaborations to advance sustainability are springing up between universities and corporations (such as here and here and here), and perhaps these will indirectly ease cultural differences.

However one ranks the credibility of commercial science or the political leanings of the academy, both science and the public good are served by researchers of every stripe learning from one another.  To achieve that, scientists don’t need to abandon their politics, or discard a healthy awareness of the incentives that can lead to bias.  But they do need to make an effort to look beyond the business card, see the person behind it, and get curious about what insights that person can offer.


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