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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