Corrupting influence of business of biotech
The Corrupting Influence of the Business of Biotech
Biopolitical Times, November 23 2010
[image caption: Jay Keasling, looking happy]
This past weekend supplied several different examples of the way that commercial prospects affect important decisions about scientific research. What is perhaps scariest is that in many””perhaps most””cases, this influence is not even recognized by the scientists involved.
The most specific article was published in the Contra Costa Times and titled:
Corporate U: Industry's reach into academia renews fears of undue influence
It focused on reaction to Jennifer Washburn's recent Center for American Progress report, "Big Oil Goes to College." Since the Contra Costa Times is part of the Bay Area News Group, which includes the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News, reporter Suzanne Bohan naturally went to scientists from Stanford and UC Berkeley for comment. Unsurprisingly, they were shocked””shocked and hurt; shocked, hurt and disappointed””by the suggestion that they and their research were anything but disinterested. Among the comments included were:
"We're all proposing to do the science exactly how we would want to, without any constraints."
"We get out of the ivory tower and into the real world."
"We spend a lot of time and money on peer review."
"I do think that the university should be the bastion of independent thought. I hold that value and I think everybody here does. I don't see what we're doing here is in any way in conflict with that."
"In the end, the most robust enforcer of academic freedom is the respect of UC Berkeley faculty for the academic tradition itself."
Cynics might snicker at that last one, but it was probably once true. The trouble is that such respect has dissolved so far as to become unrecognizable. Yet another reaction, however, is the personal favorite of this particular child of the sixties:
"We're working to steer entrenched interests into an alternate way of working. I feel this is a kind of activism that's very suitable for Berkeley."
Not to harsh your mellow or anything, dude, but, ah, the Free Speech Movement was better known for this kind of rhetoric (from Mario Savio):
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious””makes you so sick at heart””that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
Not everyone is as willing as Ignacio Chapela to confront the issues of corporate influence in academia directly, but the truly striking part of these scientists' responses is that they do not seem to recognize that there is even an issue. Washburn is no revolutionary: She sees the potential value of corporate money, but she insists that it be accompanied by watertight contracts:
"In virtually any industry, if two industry groups were establishing a 10-year research partnership, you can bet your bottom dollar that those contracts would be loaded with details about the precise nature of the collaboration. Why is it that a flagship public university would not exercise the same rigorous contract standards? It's a good idea to both safeguard the academic mission and also to be much more transparent with the public about the nature of these alliances."
Washburn did have support, in that article. Sheldon Krimsky, the Tufts University expert on science and ethics, warned about "external influence over the research that goes on at the university." Lawrence Busch, who was once hired by UC Berkeley to evaluate a deal with Novartis, and concluded that it "compromised the mission of the university," made the important point that:
"There's a more subtle aspect of this that's harder to get your hands on, but I think is clear."
In Bohan's phrase, the deals "pose a far more nuanced threat to academic freedom than overt pressure on researchers" because they steer the research agenda, and ultimately affect what reaches the marketplace. How? Well, here's a pointer to one possible answer. That same Sunday morning, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article, headlined on the website as:
Jay Keasling hits jackpot with biofuel startup
Keasling apparently netted $17 million from the recent IPO of Amyris. (In print, the article had the differently distressing title "Biofuel guru: Cells do his bidding.") He is quoted in that piece as saying, "I have always wanted not just to do science but to put it to use," and "Scientists are now getting more involved in how we commercialize technology." But he plays down the fact that, while the original idea was to produce an anti-malarial compound (itself controversial), the move into biofuels was inspired by a venture capitalist:
"They weren't thinking of fuels," said [investor Vinod] Khosla.... "I said, 'Why not go after something with a much greater impact on society?'"
And now, Amyris is also in the perfume business. That's basic science in the modern world, just following the siren call of the market.
On the same evening, 60 Minutes featured a long, hagiographic profile of Craig Venter, in which he off-handedly described himself as an "accidental millionaire." Really, he said that:
"I have been lucky," Venter acknowledged. "Sort of the accidental millionaire in terms of people keep giving me money to start companies to exploit the science."
In an outtake from the same program, he also said that "I have been absolutely amazed at the lack of human genome research in this past decade. ... There wasn't a lot of funding for it." He could get money to sequence the genomes of animals. (From a human-medicine point of view, this turned out to be less useful than expected.) So he sequenced "all kinds of animals, all kinds of mammals, lizards, alligators, horses ..."
All in all, one is tempted to quote from the First Epistle to Timothy, but Luke 23:34 seems equally appropriate. And this famous quote from Upton Sinclair:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"