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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 1998 > Article Detail

MACROSCOPE

The Biotech Future

Isaac Rabino

Ominous Signs

Figure 2. The same scientistsClick to Enlarge Image

It would be easy to conclude that the future must be bright for U.S. biotechnology, if those working in the field express such optimism about public acceptance. But some survey findings indicate otherwise.

To begin with, there is the funding question. With government funds becoming more elusive, investigators must look for alternative financing. For many in academia, this means collaborating with industry. In my 1995 U.S. survey, more than one-third of academics were involved in such collaboration. Furthermore, university-industry collaboration seemed so obviously necessary that 96 percent approved of it. However, of those who approved, 65 percent did so with serious reservations about the commercialization of recombinant DNA research.

The first of the reservations had to do with the sharing of knowledge. More than half of my respondents saw commercialization as breeding secrecy rather than scientific openness. This concern is corroborated by other studies and surveys (Blumenthal et al. 1996, OTA 1995), which show that industrial sponsorship of academic research does indeed lead to reduced sharing of research results. For instance, almost three times as many industry-supported scientists (15 percent versus 5 percent of noncollaborating scientists) reported that their work had resulted in trade secrets, and almost twice as many (11 percent versus 6 percent) said they had refused requests from colleagues to share biological materials or research results.

Second, half of the scientists in my survey felt that commercialization shifts the focus too much away from science and toward financial gain. In particular, in their comments, they showed a great deal of worry about erosion of the quality and status of basic research. Again, independent studies confirm that, as one would expect, collaboration with industry makes scientists gravitate toward research topics that promise patentable or practical results rather than basic scientific insight. For instance, David Blumenthal and his colleagues reported that more than one-third of industry-sponsored (versus 14 percent of nonsponsored) scientists said they picked research topics with an eye to commercial applicability.

I am concerned about the perceived trend toward secrecy and neglect of basic research in genetic engineering. Biotechnology is still in its infancy, still working on its foundations. Imagine if early chemists had thrown their energies into developing profitable household products before the periodic table was discovered, or physicists had kept their discoveries of subatomic particles secret. The situation in recombinant DNA research is similar: Universities, laboratories and companies are patenting or keeping secret fundamental gene sequences and data bases. As my respondents note, one certain outcome is massive duplication of key research. An even greater cost is the loss of the scientific dialogue essential for solid progress.




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