25 April 2006

Social Context of Commercializing Science


Dr. Sir John Sulston delivered the 2nd Annual Michael Smith Lecture yesterday afternoon at UBC on the topic of Biology in the Public Domain. As one would expect when a Nobel Laureate comes to town, the lecture hall was packed, and Sir John certainly delivered a lively address. As former Director of the Sanger Institute in the UK, he oversaw 1/3 of the public project devoted to the sequencing of the human genome, and was a forceful advocate for keeping the sequence information in the public domain. It was no surprise, then, to hear Sir John decry the widespread growth of patents in the field of experimental biology, a topic that has been much discussed in recent years. Indeed, there is a modest movement to build bridges between the open-source movement and biotechnology.

One very interesting morsel that Sir John tossed out to the audience was his suggestion that the commercialization of academic science could be readily connected to triumph of capitalism and the implosion of the Soviet Union. Although he did not mention the book by name, he was clearly referring to the premature crowning of victory to the capitalist enterprise by Francis Fukuyama in his 1992 book The End of History [the link is to the introduction; you can probably get an already-read copy of the book for a good price at your local used bookstore.] Personally, I think that the watershed was the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed Universities not only to patent inventions but to retain and profit from the resultant intellectual property rights, even when the fundamental discovery was made using public funds.

Irrespective of the pressures that have led to the current state of affairs, it is clear that academics increasingly view their research as not only knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but also as a potential gateway to application in the real world, including full-scale commercialization. My personal view is that there is nothing wrong with scientists moving from the bench to the boardroom and back so long as they keep their perspective on the propriety of what they are doing, and do all that is possible to minimize the potential for conflict-of-interest. If one is seriously pursuing new cures for disease, the private sector is precisely the right place to practice the craft. On the other hand, crass commercialization accompanied by restricted access to knowledge for all is an inappropriate outcome for public funds. Even a coarsely-tuned moral compass can help lead the way.

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22 April 2006

Truth in Advertising

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we can learn a thing or two from bees. Tom Seeley, a Professor at Cornell reports (subscription required; for a precis of the original research, check out the media relations story from Cornell) that honeybees use a clever strategy for decision making, in this case, moving the swarm to a new hive. 'Scouts', a subset of the group, head off to find plausible sites for the swarm to settle. When they return, they use the infamous waggle dance to let the others know where the site is, and most importantly, how good it is. The group assesses the scouts' reports, and then the swarm moves to the best site.

The system is not really all that surprising - but it does represent a remarkable display of decision by committee. The authors highlight the fact that the collective decision "is a product of disagreement and contest rather than consensus or compromise". What I found notable about the piece was the honesty of the scouts. If the site that an individual scout finds is excellent, the resultant waggle dance is exuberant. On the other hand, if the site is only acceptable, the waggle dance is more muted. The competition for having found the best site does not result in deception: given that the objective is the overall welfare of the swarm, the scouts are scrupulous about being honest in their assessments.

Being highly evolved animals, you would think that we humans would treat important decisions with equal candor. Unfortunately the evidence goes against us. Earlier this month, Carl Elliot published a damning piece in the Atlantic entitled The Drug Pushers. Even more alarming, this past week witnessed the Inaugural Conference on Disease Mongering in Newcastle, Australia. Draw your own conclusions, but this much is clear: we would be better off if humans treated the marketing of medicines with the same veracity as honeybees.

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02 April 2006

Multicultural baboons

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford with a long-standing interest in primatology has written a thoughtful article in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs (of all places). In the piece, he describes a remarkable social phenomenon observed in a troop of Savannah baboons in Kenya. Normally, about half of the male members of the troop are very aggressive and the other half more social - a version of the storied alpha male phenomenon. When a tourist lodge expanded its territory into one occupied by this particular troop, they became rather adept at pilfering food from the garbage dump. Soon thereafter an epidemic of tuberculosis swept through the troop, with the infection apparently caused by some tainted garbage. Because the most aggressive males had preferential access to the food they were also preferentially affected, and this caused a sea change in the behavior of the troop as a whole: the aggressive males died quickly and the few remaining males were markedly less aggressive and more social. Despite the fact that more than 20 years have elapsed and all of the Savannah baboons that were alive during the tuberculosis event have died, the "Garbage Dump" troop remains highly social today, in stark contrast to other troops of Savannah baboons in the area.

This phenomenon is even more remarkable when one considers the mating behavior of Savannah baboons. As with many species, Savannah baboons exchange members between troops, an adaptation that presumably reduces inbreeding. But the social rules are quite precise: juvenile males leave their troop and join neighboring troops, working their way through the hierarchy of the new community. One would expect that about half of the males that joined the Garbage Dump troop would be aggressive and the other half social. Yet twenty years later, the entire troop remains highly social, suggesting that the newcomers adopted the social mores of the local group.

Apparently, a similar experiment has been going on in the Netherlands, except in reverse, and with tragic consequences. Writing in the New Yorker, Jane Kramer describes the approach that Holland has taken to multiculturalism, something called the "pillar model". A solution to the fighting between the Catholics and Protestants in the seventeenth century, the pillar model allows each group to manage its own affairs, with separate neighborhoods, hospitals, schools, and even state-supported media. The model worked well as tolerant Holland managed its affairs from the Enlightenment into the modern age, and by the twentieth century the country was essentially divided into Catholic, Protestant and humanist pillars.

The wrinkle appears to have come with the wave of recruitments from Turkey and Morocco that began in the 1960s. Rather than integrate these newcomers into Dutch society, the pillar model was applied, allowing the growing Muslim population to not only continue to maintain their religious and cultural heritage, but essentially walling them off from Dutch society at large. The experiment is now widely viewed as a dismal failure, defined perhaps most vividly by the murder of the provocateur Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a young Dutch-Moroccan fanatic who, incensed by the filmmaker's scurrilous depiction of Islam in his film Submission, shot van Gogh eight times, repeatedly slit his throat and then pinned a long diatribe to his chest with a knife.

Surely the abominable socioeconomic conditions of Dutch Muslims contributes to the problems that Holland is experiencing, but the concept of the pillar society plays a role as well. It is here that the story of the Garbage Dump troop of Savannah baboons is informative: cultural integration is an entirely normal occurrence, and probably needs to be achieved on some level if multicultural societies are to live in harmony. Certainly, tolerant societies must be respectful of cultural and religious diversity, and the heritage that immigrants bring to multicultural societies imbue them with vibrancy. At the same time, it is imperative that when social groups with different cultural backgrounds live together, efforts are made to bridge the inevitable gaps between them. Societies that ignore the lessons of the Dutch experiment do so at their peril.



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01 April 2006

Sloth is now a disease

Scientists in Australia have come up with a new disease: extreme sloth. Australian neuroscientist Leth Argos has identified a new disease called Motivational Deficiency Disorder. Described in a new article in the British Medical Journal (subscription required), Ray Moynihan reveals further that people who suffer from MoDeD can be characterized by overwhelming and debilitating apathy. Moreover, the little-known biotechnology company Healthtec is testing a new drug, Indolebant, as a potential treatment for MoDeD. In a wonderful piece of scientific sleuthing, they discovered that drugs that block the effects of THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) at the CB1 receptor antagonize the slothful behaviour of MoDeD sufferers. Critics have been quick to point out that medicalization of laziness is just the latest, and perhaps most audacious example of disease mongering by the pharmaceutical industry.

British Medical Journal has a nifty Rapid Response feature. If you can, it is worth checking out the responses to this piece of news.