Opinion: Should Science Be for Sale?

The increasing push to commercialize research is destroying the scientific community.

By | August 20, 2013

WIKIMEDIAI was born in the USSR and now work as a postdoc at University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. Once, my PI and I were returning to a hotel after dinner with our collaborators in a different UK city, where one of the postdocs had the same post-Soviet background as me. My boss commented that there seems to be a lot of people of Soviet extraction working in Western science and joked that we are close to taking over it. I replied that he doesn’t have to worry; the supply of Soviet scientists is gone, never to be replaced.

After the demise of the USSR in 1991, science in the former Soviet Republics lost most of its funding, and as a result, most scientists lost their once-prestigious, middle-income jobs. The prevailing mood of the society changed; most of the population, including many scientists, decided that the only thing that mattered in life was earning money—fast. Many academics, such as Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky, a former department head at The Institute of Systems Control of the Russian Academy of Sciences, changed their careers, leaving old professors and young PhD students alone in the lab. Without their mentors, many young researchers who actually cared about science abandoned their home universities for work in the West.

Fast forward 20 years: the devaluing of the pursuit of knowledge as a life goal in the former Soviet Republics has resulted in a significant drop in the quality of high-school teaching and, consequently, in the level and motivation of undergraduate students. Former Soviet professors have largely retired, and former Soviet PhD students, practically self-taught, now head those labs, and they say it is difficult to find a good graduate student or postdoc, who will work beyond a 9-to-5 day and actually care about the research he or she is doing. The people who embark on a postgraduate degree are doing it not because they are excited about science, but because they think that an advanced degree would be good for their careers, which has led to a tendency to minimize the work and fake the results.

And simply throwing money at the destroyed scientific community hasn't helped. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently admitted that while science funding increased 10-fold in the last 10 years and the total amount of money spent is now larger than that of Britain, this has not resulted in an increased scientific output. On the contrary, the number of Russian researchers who publish in the Western journals or file patents applications is decreasing.

This situation is not unique to the former Soviet Union, however. Even in my adopted home, the United Kingdom, where I work as a postdoc in the relatively sexy field of yeast prions, there seems to be a general lack of respect for knowledge for its own sake. When I tell my nonscientific acquaintances and high-school pupils about what I do, they don't  ask what I have discovered, but what is the immediate practical application of what I do.

Sadly, there is an increased drive in Western science to commercialize discoveries—academics are encouraged to start spin-off companies, and applied research is actively promoted. It is very difficult to get funding for fundamental research, which may not show dividends for 10–20 years. Universities are run as for-profit companies, where students are paying customers, who get a “product” (a degree) and academics have as much value as the grants they bring in. And the job market for postgraduate scientists is growing increasingly similar to that of factory workers in the 19th century: we are considered to be easily replaceable and therefore have few rights beyond a short-term contract.

American political philosopher Michael Sandel argues in his book What Money Can’t Buy that some things should not be for sale, such as human organs, medals for valor, and even undergraduate places in top universities. He says that an “everything-is-for-sale” mentality damages the functioning of society. I wonder if fundamental science should also be included in this list of things that are easy to commodify but even easier to devalue. If everything is for sale, and if the people who are doing science are not valued, then research loses something that is hard to define, but that is vital to the progress of science—as the situation in the former Soviet Union has so clearly demonstrated.

Victoria Doronina is a postdoc in the lab of Chris Grant at University of Manchester, where she studies oxidative stress as a cause of yeast prion formation.

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Avatar of: neodim

neodim

Posts: 1

August 20, 2013

In the Russian science bet is placed not on the actual result, and the "paper". It is profitable to officials from science. It started back in the 90's, but not stopped. But globalization and allows Russia to engage in advanced research.

August 20, 2013

Only in recent times did scientific discovery have little to do with commercial or practical outcomes. Even then, the idealism associated with the writers  assumption that knowledge for its own sake is devalued in the present culture ignores the vast majority of history in which scientific discovery was almost always the result of some practical need. As just one example, the discovery of the transistor by Shockley at Bell Labs was motivated by commercial considerations to improve the vacuum tube as a way to store and move data.  The societal, practical function of academia is to prepare students for contribution to life after the "ivory tower"; hopefully along the way, the good student will, for themselves, acquire love of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Developing such provides character and discernment important for maintaining a high standard of contribution necessary for both academic and commercial pursuits. So, please take heart that one can have high standards outside academia, and that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a right to be practiced by all.  

Avatar of: G.Faggian

G.Faggian

Posts: 1

August 20, 2013

Dear Victoria, I don't Know the situation about research opportunity in Russia, but I have and had a chance to work with many Ph.D. students coming from Russia . I must say that all of of them had the enthusiasm and knowledge to porsue the goals and they are very committed with research and work. I believe that those people formed outside the Russian Federation will be the future. I am strongly convinced that those russian student are much better of some coming from the western countries and can add (as you did in UK) prestige not only to the country where they presently work but also... in the long run to their home country.

The problem of financing the research is  everywhere (more or less) and having grants are wey difficult nowadays . It is mandatory to create networks and sharing manpower and founds and the results will come. 

Avatar of: ironjustice

ironjustice

Posts: 28

August 20, 2013

I suppose then adding iron to bread makes the yeast produce prions, which cause neurodegenerative disease, in a nutshell.

Avatar of: mightythor

mightythor

Posts: 44

August 20, 2013

I have been disturbed by the same trend. The current rage for "translational research" is turning university science into commercial R&D, and distorting the mission of research universities, which now have a major focus of promoting commercial initiatives within the walls of the institution, to the detriment of both basic research and teaching.

Avatar of: Echohawk

Echohawk

Posts: 1

August 20, 2013

About a year ago I had commented on a gentleman 's article titled " Thinking Outside of the Box " the author is a Medical research scientist and a professor .

Through the course of the conversation , he mentioned that often university research teams are plagued with pettiness , some  members keeping discoveries they have made secret from other members of the team , gossiping , just a host of negative behaviour that is very counter productive .

He wasn't suggesting that all public research teams were suffering these problems but it was a prevalent problem among many University research teams .

This is not a common problem in privately funded research teams , for obvious reasons . I think that both systems of funding research are needed , because lots of types of research has really no immediate commercial value , but it does add important base knowledge to a given field .

The shrinking funds for research is creating problems with the purity of research science where corporations, and or, political advocates can push their agenda on scientists for certain results . This is a grave concern and one that the science community needs to resist vigorously .

Avatar of: Jim Melichar

Jim Melichar

Posts: 1

August 20, 2013

I would like to see more discussion on this subject. Many entities have found that 'privatizing' their operations brought new enthusiasm (capital) to their door. I surely see your point but I am left wondering if some profit making might not be beneficial 'advertizing' as to what science has the potential to unleash. I think that much of the lethargy people have towards extended life in general is due to their not having faith, or oftentime, even respect, for science. There is still much PR that we need to accomplish here. ???    JimE.Mel

Avatar of: tzl

tzl

Posts: 1

August 20, 2013

Like it or not, it's the same way it works in most countries. While there should be space for risk and possible failure, the tax payers are the ones funding basic research through national research programs. We can't stay in the babels tower and feel insulted why the "common people" can't appreciate knowledge for the sake of knowledge. It is our job to explain why our research is benefitting society.

Avatar of: Dora Smith

Dora Smith

Posts: 7

August 20, 2013

The ability to commercialize the results of research depends on the ability to patent it.   The U.S. Supreme Court just upheld the longstanding legal and scientific principal that basic knowledge and natural processes cannot be copyrighted, in reference to genetic code. 

 

This is a longstanding problem.   For instance, there was an attempt to patent the technological knowledge on which radio and television depend, or something of the sor,t and if the courts had upheld it, we would not have radio and TV today, because only one company could have used the technology and it would not have further developed.

Avatar of: vksonakia

vksonakia

Posts: 1

August 21, 2013

History of Science already changed.NKS-New Kind of Science and Next Generation Science i.e.FIT-Future Imaging Tool technology patent paper published developed which forecast one year in advance manmade and natural calamities .Under IPR License this technology can be learnt which is cheapest online technology of world.MORAL AND ECONOMIC RIGHT of Inventor are to be protected by paying him royalty so nothing wrong in it as per TRIPS-IPR-WTO AGREEMENT .

See twitter vksonkia 

www.forecastdisaster.org

vk sonakia

Unified Field Scientist

Bhopal

India

Avatar of: Vicki Doronina

Vicki Doronina

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from ironjustice made on August 20, 2013

August 21, 2013

Approximately with the same rate as sticking pins in a doll  causes skin cancer in  the human it represents.

Avatar of: BobD

BobD

Posts: 20

Replied to a comment from Dora Smith made on August 20, 2013

August 21, 2013

The patent system has be criticized primarily for abuses of the system, but realize that the intent is to balance the potential reward to the inventor (a 20 year "monopoly" on the invention) with the requirement that the inventor publicly disclose in the patent how the invention works so society can build on it.  Had radio and television been patented at their inceptions, those patents would have expired decades ago and anyone would be free to practice them.  I have not searched the literature, but I'm pretty sure the term "television" was coined much later than the first invention; nevertheless there are currently more that 170,000 US patents containing that term.  This looks to me like a lively market for intellectual property, not one where people are supressing progress by sitting on valuable inventions.

Avatar of: ironjustice

ironjustice

Posts: 28

August 21, 2013

Lie detector tests for all professors. Is their work 'geared' towards commercial. If the bells and whistles go off, they are demoted.

In the real world.

The university designs the program and it has been said, in Alberta for example, the design of programs seems to coincidentally include disproportionate research into the oil industry, leaving some to wonder whether their time and monies are going to 'well rounded' education. So, there is more to lose in the commercialisation of research, great minds, are sidetracked.

Avatar of: Bbaum

Bbaum

Posts: 1

August 21, 2013

As has been pointed out, this is not entirely a new issue nor is itlimited to any one country.  However it is essential for the future of scientific progress that several things are given high priority:  (1) that federal funding for basic research be continued and increased; (2) that university developments be patened and licensed when possible by the inventor and the university in mutually agreeable ways; (3) that clean separation be made between what is the universities and what the "inventor" can then do on her/his own; and (4) that both parts are valued in P&T and salary processes.

Avatar of: ironjustice

ironjustice

Posts: 28

August 23, 2013

Libel laws come into play when one works in the University setting. One mustn't libel anyone with deep pockets, such as the meat industry, therefore resulting in the stifling of research into disease risk, such as meat eating causing encephalopathy?

"The nutritional contribution to bovine spongiform encephalopathy"

Avatar of: elos

elos

Posts: 1

August 24, 2013

I personally feel sorry for scientists who feel offended, get frustrated, and can not answer to high-school students or even to neighbors about practical benefits of their research projects (especially with yeast prions should not be any troubles)... May be that is why our society do not take it seriously or can not understand its importance? Well, do you really think that is more appropriate to tell them something like: by the way I just discover that "replacement of final Pro codon of 2A peptides with any stop codon affect ribosome processivity and inhibits nascent chain release" ?

Avatar of: Vicki Doronina

Vicki Doronina

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from AJLo made on August 25, 2013

August 27, 2013

Your condescension is unnecessary - I am neither poor, nor a girl. Let's hope that your luck will hold out.

Avatar of: Vicki Doronina

Vicki Doronina

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from elos made on August 24, 2013

August 27, 2013

Please have a look at  a popular article explaining what  this means. The article is in Rissuan but Google Translate should help:

http://biomolecula.ru/content/953

Avatar of: AJLo

AJLo

Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Vicki Doronina made on August 27, 2013

September 1, 2013

Hi Victoria,

My "Ah, poor girl" has been said jokingly. Sorry about that.

Goodbye. Good luck.

Avatar of: steva

steva

Posts: 1

September 4, 2013

I have known many grad students coming from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia, and I had a great experience working with them. This person, piteous essays (check yet another opus of her in Science). I might be wrong, but I think she is one of those people who blame their personal failures on others: their motherland, family and neighbours, co-workers and bosses, global politics and economy.
 

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