The Heart and Soul of Science

Two items recently perused have, in their own separate ways, set me thinking about a debate that should be taking place, but isn't. No, strike debate, it should be a struggle for the hearts and souls of academic scientists. At issue are the behavioral norms that guide the research community. In the red corner, see the Oct. 9 leader (editorial) in the British newspaper The Guardian. Under the title "Patent Justice," the piece applauds the award of the Nobel Prize to John Sulston, and continues

Oct 28, 2002
Richard Gallagher

Two items recently perused have, in their own separate ways, set me thinking about a debate that should be taking place, but isn't. No, strike debate, it should be a struggle for the hearts and souls of academic scientists. At issue are the behavioral norms that guide the research community.

In the red corner, see the Oct. 9 leader (editorial) in the British newspaper The Guardian. Under the title "Patent Justice," the piece applauds the award of the Nobel Prize to John Sulston, and continues:

"... Sir John's biggest contribution to humankind may not have yet arrived. It was his insistence that the information from the human genome should be freely available to everyone that raised eyebrows-- especially on the other side of the Atlantic, where the ownership of ideas, software code and genes was seen as a prerequisite for a booming 'knowledge economy.'

"Since then the Internet bubble has burst, biotechnology companies have failed to produce drugs from genetic intellectual property, and poor nations have made a strong case that patents offer more pitfalls than promise. Sir John's criticism of patents--that they were only one means for promoting discovery and could stifle invention--appears more relevant now than ever."

In the blue corner, see the technology transfer revelations in the previous issue of The Scientist.1 In 2000, the top 10 US universities generated more than $700 million (US) in patent income, with the nationwide total exceeding $1 billion. The single biggest earner, Columbia University, earned $138.6 million. That'll fund a lot of research!

Technology transfer--the conveyance of academic research results to the commercial marketplace--began in earnest with the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. In that year, only 25 to 30 US universities were actively engaged in patenting; since then the number has increased 10-fold, generating 3,000 new companies, 250,000 jobs, and 1,500 marketed products. Proponents cite profit for industry, enhanced financial prospects for universities, improved scientific investment, and benefit to millions worldwide.

Clearly this is a success story. But is there a point beyond which commercialization of academic research begins to do outright harm? Has the pendulum swung too far already? Among the issues are:

  • Research as an independent activity. Is it? (Was it ever?)
  • Integrity. Might money take precedence?
  • Openness and collegiality. Intellectual liberty. Are they threatened and, if so, are they worth fighting for, or are they eclipsed by the benefits cited above?
  • Fear that knowledge once considered part of the public domain will be fenced off.
  • Loss of representation of the public interest amidst the interlocking interests of academic science and commerce.
  • Constriction of creativity by strategic planning.
  • Loss of support for less commercially tenable areas.

Your opinions on these issues are welcome.

--Richard Gallagher, Editor (rgallagher@the-scientist.com)

1. T. Agres, "Life science patents enrich academe," The Scientist, 16[20]:63-4 Oct. 14, 2002.