Fiction lagging behind or non-fiction defending the indefensible? University-industry (et al.) interaction in science-fiction

Joaquín M. Azagra-Caro

Laura González-Salmerón
University of Oxford

Pedro Marques

University-industry interaction has supporters and detractors in the scholarly literature. Whereas policymakers have mainly joined the former, science-fiction authors have predominantly enrolled the latter. We illustrate how the genre has been critical to university-industry interaction via the analysis of the most positively acclaimed novels from the 1970s to date. Insights include the lack of an academic or policy narrative about the benefits of university-industry interaction so convincing as to permeate into popular culture. Discourse is crucial for legitimising ideas, and university-industry interaction may have not found the most appropriate yet.


Our corpus is composed of the novels that were concurrent winners of the Locus, Nebula and Hugo Awards, plus Frank Herbert’s Dune. There are 15 books.


For limitations of space, we just report one example of the evidence per sub-section.

Conflict of interest with the public service (a): threats to sustainability and life

This category is the more populated with examples, starting with the oldest novel in the sample, Dune. It narrates the story of a galactic economy based on the traffic of melange, a spice produced only in one planet, Arrakis, inhabited by the Fremen. The Emperor has granted the non-local Harkonnen family the management of Arrakis. Kynes, an Imperial Planetologist who conducts research in Arrakis, is critical to the way the Harkonnen exploit it for their own benefit and in detriment to the Fremen. He oversees the transaction between the Harkonnen and another family, the Atreides. Duke Leto Atreides gives Kynes permission to study the spice, research that the Harkonnens had prevented in the past, and the Emperor himself does not seem to support either:
I don’t care if you study the spice as long as I share what you discover […]. The Harkonnens discouraged investigation of the spice, didn’t they?
In fact, the Emperor has allowed this transaction, in connivance with the Harkonnens, to set a trap to the Atreides –a representation of a conglomerate of industrial-government interests. The Harkonnens, back in charge, target and eventually succeed in killing Leto Atreides and Kynes:
–Have the Man [Kynes] killed.
–M’Lord! Kynes is the Imperial Planetologist, His Majesty’s own ser—
–Make it look like an accident.

Conflict of interest with the public service (b): keeping ownership of ideas

Although there is no explicit mention to legal mechanisms to enforce intellectual property rights, The Dispossessed uses it as dramatic material. Physicist Shevek accepts a position as a professor at an Urrasti university, in the capitalist state of A-Io. However, Shevek finds this state as a “private”, profit-maximising institution (although it is supposed to be democratic; it is not), and the government as monetizing and selfishly profiting on publicly-funded research. Shevek wants is to make his knowledge available to everyone: knowledge belongs to the people, not the government, not a group of elite individuals, but everyone.
I came here from Anarres because I thought that here I could do the work and publish it. I didn’t understand that here an idea is a property of the State. I don’t work for a State. I can’t take the money and the things they give me. I want to get out […]. I was to be kept from the populace, to live among scholars and the rich. Not to see the poor. Not to see anything ugly... There I was to be happy and do my work, the work I could not do on Anarres. And when it was done I was give it to them, so they could threaten you with it.

Conflict of commitment: non-disclosure of information

Yet another character from Dune exemplifies the corruption of scientists serving private interests. Doctor Yueh is a physician from a Suk School, which imposes Imperial Conditioning –a sort of unbreakable Hippocratic Oath, to be incapable of inflicting harm, but the Harkonnens kidnap Yueh’s wife to force him betray the Atreides, to whom he serves. Yueh, a wise and good man of science, is not reliable any longer for his ‘organization’, due to the external pressures of ‘industrial’ stakeholders (represented by the Harkonnen).

Conflict of equity: lower promotion of ‘disengaged’ academics

Should scientists be able to research whatever they are interested in, or should society dictate that according to its own needs? Before moving to Urras (see section 3.3), in The Dispossessed, Shevek lives in Anarres, where he is frowned at for not focusing on the problems his society considers more important. He joins the university to develop his theory, but Sabul, a jealous superior, blocks his work. He is accused of putting his personal desires and intellectual interests before society’s needs. He loses his job at the university, effectively being forced to perform agricultural labour, instead of working on his research. Sabul explains it to Shevek
What worked against you was a combination of things. The abstruse, irrelevant nature of the research you’ve done these last several years. Plus a certain feeling, not necessarily justified, but existing among many student and teaching members of the Institute, that your teaching and behaviour both reflect a certain disaffection, a degree of privatism, of non-altruism.


In this paper, we merge university-industry interaction studies with the literature on representations of science in popular culture. By doing so, we expect to have contributed to university-industry interaction studies by signalling that: (a) most disadvantages of university-industry interaction are extendable to university interactions with other sectors of performance (government and society); (b) the predominant popular view of university-industry interactions is negative, and not even the rise of university-industry interaction in the last four decades has changed it. This suggests that policymakers have not focused on the importance of discourse for legitimising action (McCloskey 2002).