Scientists' 'publish or perish' credo now 'patent and profit'
'Recombinant U.' phenomenon alters academic culture
Tom Abate / SF Chronicle 13aug01
When we spliced the profit gene into academic culture, we created a new organism -- the recombinant university. We reprogrammed the incentives that guide science. The rule in academe used to be "publish or perish." Now bioscientists have an alternative -- "patent and profit."
The night President George Bush announced limited support for embryonic stem cell research, I asked Stanford chemist Paul Berg for his reaction to the policy and the process by which it was decided. Berg holds a special place in biotechnology and not simply because of his Nobel Prize in chemistry. During the mid-1970s, Berg called for a moratorium on what lay people call gene-splicing and scientists call recombinant DNA. The term refers to cutting DNA from one organism and pasting it into the genome of another. This cut-and-paste process reprograms the second organism. Recombinant DNA is biotech's foundation. It's how we trick bacteria into making new medicines for us, and how we teach grains to produce pesticides to protect themselves. Of course, none of this was known back when Berg urged caution until scientists could be certain they wouldn't cut-and-paste biological perils. Berg was traveling the night Bush spoke. I reached him in the hotel room where he was taking calls from reporters who wanted his thoughts about the so-called compromise. "I am sitting here mystified," Berg said, voicing the standard scientific concerns, such as whether there are really 60 different batches of stem cells and, if so, whether 60 would be enough. When I asked what he thought about the furor leading up to Bush's decision, Berg became animated. "A year ago, when we became involved in moving stem cells forward, I could never have imagined the public would become so fascinated," he said. He contrasted the stem cell debate with the gene-splicing moratorium 25 years ago. "The recombinant DNA controversy arose from the ranks of science," he said. The technique was so new that only scientists could grasp its promise or perils. "It came like a bolt out of the blue," he said. "There were lots of kudos to the scientists for raising it and deciding how to deal with it."
Opposition to stem cell research came from outside science, mainly from the religious right. Nor was this the only instance of political opposition to biotechnology he found troubling. "Today, almost every controversy we have has hardened constituencies," Berg said. These controversies revolve around value judgments rather than scientific differences, he said. And that makes the issues more difficult to resolve. "You could not organize a conference on genetically modified foods today and expect it to come out with a consensus," Berg said. What has changed during the past quarter-century? Have Luddites set out to limit different avenues of science, with the right walling off the embryo, while the left protects grains and the environment? Perhaps. But I think we the people haven't changed nearly so much as they, the scientists. Since the 1980s, bipartisan government policies have encouraged scientists and universities to patent their discoveries, attract venture capital and form companies to convert knowledge into products. Bioscience has been the greatest practitioner of this new approach to knowledge creation.
The National Institutes of Health subsidize academic research. After federal grants have flushed out blind alleys, private capital takes the promising avenues toward new medicines. This process has given rise to the biotech industry, to the many jobs and fortunes it has created, and to the many life-saving medicines it has produced. But this social engineering also has produced side effects. When we spliced the profit gene into academic culture, we created a new organism -- the recombinant university. We reprogrammed the incentives that guide science. The rule in academe used to be "publish or perish." Now bioscientists have an alternative -- "patent and profit."
Let me give you an example. Earlier this year I reported that several University of California scientists had won a patent for a process for putting genes into pills. Until then, the prevailing wisdom had been that our digestive juices would dissolve any DNA we swallowed. That's what I was told when I called gene therapy experts to make sure I wasn't being hoaxed. These experts were as astonished as I was because the UC professors hadn't published their work in the way scientists traditionally did. Instead, they used the patent filing to help them raise money to form a company in Alameda, called Genteric, to try and make gene pills as medicines. Other scientists are doing the same. In the recombinant university, the advance of scientific knowledge in return for glory -- what most of us would consider pure science -- is no longer the only incentive.
Researchers can opt for rapid commercialization, in which case they may wish to keep some data under wraps. But if academic science has changed, why should we trust its self-policing mechanisms -- especially if they trod on some value we hold dear? I posed that question to Roger Pedersen, the stem cell researcher who recently decided to move from the University of California at San Francisco, to the United Kingdom, where the government has placed fewer restrictions on public support for stem cell work. "It's an issue I concern myself about in terms of ethical behavior as a scientist," Pedersen told me during a brief interview Friday. Pedersen alluded to recent scandals, in which researchers who owned stock in biotech firms pushed safety limits. "Disclosure is one aspect," he said. "You have to say to your subject, 'I could benefit from this commercially.' " But these instances, he said, are rare and the scientists involved quickly get ostracized. "I think it's a self-regulating system," Pedersen said, adding with a smile that came through the phone, "We're not all cowboys."
Certainly not the Bergs and the Pedersens. Nonetheless, bioscientists today are like the homesteaders of a bygone era. They've got their wagons lined up at the edge of unclaimed land, waiting for the shot to fire so they can race out and stake their claims. I wonder whether it's possible for them to still exhibit the sort of self- restraint they did a quarter-century ago, or whether caution gets lost in the heat of ambition and the thundering of the hooves.