Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research? | The Nation


Lab Test: Who Profits From Scientific Research?

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The real issue is precisely the one that Shapin ends up dismissing, the one that has been troubling social critics--and quite a number of scientists--since the days of Weber and before. Does the injection of the profit motive into scientific research distort the kinds of questions that get investigated and degrade the quality of the results that get produced? There are strong reasons to believe that it does. The lion's share of Nobel Prizes still comes, as it always has, from academia. Bell Labs, the crown jewel of industrial research, has produced six. Columbia, Harvard, MIT and a long list of other universities have produced several times that many each. Granted, the main province of industrial science is applied research, but how well have we done there, at least since World War II? Why is it that Japanese and German engineering--their cars, their cameras--have long been so superior to ours? Shapin speaks about the crisis of American competitiveness in the 1970s, but he doesn't pursue the inference that it reflected a failure of corporate science over the previous decades. As for the large-scale federal programs that once made up such an important share of our national identity and national pride, as these have become increasingly subject to the pressures of political interests--which is to say, of financial ones--they, too, have declined into mediocrity. On the one hand, the Manhattan Project and the moon landings; on the other, the space shuttle and Star Wars.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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Given this record, do we really want to turn academic science over to the logic of the marketplace? Already, as Shapin notes (though only to show that academia may no longer be much better than industry anyway), corporate methods and values have begun to corrupt the academic enterprise. Investigators, especially those still clawing their way up the tenure ladder, are judged by the quantity, not the quality, of their scientific work, a situation that encourages small, rapid and repeated publication rather than the development of broad conceptual reach and the slow maturing of insight. (Scientists speak ironically of the LPU, or "least publishable unit," the smallest quantum of knowledge acceptable for separate publication.) Scientific fields less amenable to the new mission of technology transfer--astronomy, paleontology--find their institutional fortunes declining, to say nothing of the humanities and social sciences. Worst of all, basic research, the foundation of everything else, including long-term technological competitiveness--yes, the proverbial golden goose--is being sacrificed to the most obtuse notions of utility. The problem is most severe where government involvement, and therefore political interference, is greatest. The cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider project in 1993 meant nothing less than the abdication of America's leadership in basic physics. (CERN's Large Hadron Collider under the Franco-Swiss border is beginning the vast exploratory work the SSC would have done.) Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have complained for years that valuable unmanned projects have been starved of funding to feed the scientifically dubious shuttle and space station programs.

But the most urgent argument against the continued corporatization of science lies in one of the fields where Shapin's concatenation of academic scientists, technology transfer officers and venture capitalists has been most active: biotech. Whatever the value of the drugs and devices produced by small start-ups, these companies are part of a larger system that is dominated by Big Pharma. In fact, the whole business model in biotech depends on the assumption that a firm, if successful, will be bought out by one of the major drug-makers. And as yet another wave of books has shown, Big Pharma has thoroughly corrupted the academic medical system (see "Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption," by Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, in the January 15 edition of The New York Review of Books). Doctors are bribed with speaking and consulting fees; institutions, with endowed chairs and funded awards; professional organizations, with the subsidization of conferences. Useless or even dangerous drugs are promoted, negative findings suppressed, research papers ghostwritten by the very companies whose medications they are supposed to be evaluating, whole conditions invented through a process Angell calls "disease-mongering" to create new markets for existing products (shyness becomes "social anxiety disorder," PMS "premenstrual dysphoric disorder"). The system works well for everyone except patients. This is what comes of thinking that scientific integrity can survive the assault of the profit motive.

So vast has the apparatus of scientific discovery and technological development become that we have all but stopped noticing it. We simply take it for granted that such wonders as theoretical physics, molecular genetics, space exploration and computer science will continue as a background condition of contemporary life. There's a certain fatalism to this. Though developments like cloning and genetic sequencing sometimes stir a bit of halfhearted professional hand-wringing among ethicists and journalists, nobody really seems to think we can do anything about them. But there have been exceptions, moments when citizens have decided not to let scientific business go on as usual. One such moment involved the AIDS community, which not only managed to change the course of research into that disease but also challenged the idea of science as a realm of pure objectivity unaffected by human bias and interest. Another involved the opposition to embryonic stem cell research, which insisted that scientific issues are not just technical but also moral ones, and largely succeeded in blocking that avenue of investigation in this country. Whatever one thinks of either development, both demonstrate that we do not have to acquiesce in the notion that scientists and the institutions that employ them are necessarily the wisest custodians of our technological future. The choice is not between the disinterested pursuit of truth for the sake of the common good and the meddling of ignorant laypeople. The choice, as it always is, is whether corporations will control our collective fate, or we will.

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