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1 April 2008 Money Talks
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Since World War II, the foundation of American science policy has been the notion that science is different from other social activities, and so must be governed differently. This claim to exceptionalism rests on two beliefs: first, that science can thrive only if it is left to govern itself through such activities as peer review and the independent replication of research results; and second, that if society wants to enjoy the benefits of science, it must leave science to police itself, to pursue new knowledge according to its own lights. Of course, the reality is that American science has never been anything close to pure, at least not since the founding of the land grant college system in 1862, which formalized the obligation of university research to serve the needs of the nation's farmers. During the Cold War, American science was central to what President Dwight Eisenhower termed the “military industrial complex,” and in recent decades, science has been increasingly called upon to enhance national competitiveness. Nevertheless, exceptionalism is still strong in the rhetoric of science, and it is in this space between base reality and high-minded ideals that the distinguished science journalist Daniel Greenberg has worked for the past 40 years or more.

Whereas in the 1960s only a handful of universities aspired to be national leaders in research across many scientific fields, today virtually every university is engaged in what Greenberg terms an “academic ‘arms race’” for more research dollars, more scientific superstars, and more expensive equipment.

In Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism, Greenberg explores the intimate connections between academic biomedical research, government funding agencies, and the pharmaceutical industry. In particular, he is concerned about the increasing emphasis on entrepreneurialism and commercialization in universities, and about whether these values are compromising the integrity and priorities of academic researchers and science.

Although Science for Sale has the tone of a polemic, it is in fact a conspicuously well-balanced assessment, grounded both in abundant new evidence collected by Greenberg (mostly from extensive interviews) and his deep knowledge of US science policy. If the tone is somewhat cranky (and vintage Greenberg), this is perhaps an unavoidable consequence of the tension between the “pious” (one of his favorite words) rhetoric of scientists and science advocates and the reality of universities and their researchers engaged in a desperate, never-ending battle for resources—a reality that creates enormous opportunity for conflict.

It's not that Greenberg has any illusions about a former golden age of academic science. His previous books (The Politics of Pure Science, 1967; and Science, Money, and Politics, 2001) were painstaking chronicles of science as a profoundly political activity. But something important has changed. Whereas in the 1960s only a handful of universities aspired to be national leaders in research across many scientific fields, today virtually every university is engaged in what Greenberg terms an “academic ‘arms race’” for more research dollars, more scientific superstars, and more expensive equipment. Greenberg pokes fun at the “megalomaniac proclamations” issuing from places like Quinnipiac University, with its “bold and far-reaching Strategic Plan for Academic Excellence and National Prominence,” and Northeastern, which announced a “five-year, $75-million Academic Investment Plan [to build] research strength in four fields of great importance to the welfare of our society” (p. 30). But any university that fails to compete effectively in the arms race will rapidly lose resources, high-quality faculty, the capacity to attract donors and good students, and, perhaps worst of all, standing in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. Meanwhile, the rising cost of doing research (and hiring superstars) continues to outstrip increases in the federal science budget.

Common wisdom would have it that the arms race is increasingly supported by corporate funding for university research, but Greenberg correctly points out that there is nothing new about the cozy relationship between academia and industry, and that the percentage of academic research directly supported by the private sector remains rather low (4.9 percent in 2004). In fact, Greenberg documents that pharmaceutical firms are generally unenthusiastic about paying for basic academic research because of the meager returns and the bureaucratic hassles involved. “There is no truth,” Greenberg asserts categorically, “to the frequent, wholesale depictions of university-based science as a passive appendage of corporate America” (p. 45).

Science for Sale portrays a more multi-faceted but nonetheless troubling situation, where a confluence of factors ensures that economic values compete strongly with scientific ones in the laboratory. The factors include the irresistible pressure on universities to expand their research activities and make money off them, public policies that encourage the commercialization of academic research, and a pharmaceutical industry interested primarily in getting products to market. The competition in turn creates an environment that invites conflicts of interest and wishful thinking about how universities can meld the creation of knowledge with new streams of revenue.

The first half of the book is devoted to the pressures and changes occurring in academic biomedical science. Greenberg presents chapter-long treatments of several interrelated problems: the continual searches for corporate benefactors, the increasing (and typically unsuccessful) focus on intellectual property and technology transfer as a way of generating new revenue, and the ethical lapses in the conduct of science, especially industry-funded clinical research. He details oft-told stories, such as the “repulsive circumstances” (p. 151) surrounding the death of Jesse Gelsinger during a gene-therapy experiment at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as less-familiar tales, such as the political machinations associated with efforts of the National Institutes of Health to improve and enforce human subjects regulations. These efforts led to the brief shutdown of research at two alpha-dog institutions, Johns Hopkins (also following a patient death) and Duke University.

Commercial applications are no longer viewed as an ancillary outcome of research, but rather as both a responsibility of scientists and a central part of the growth strategies of most research universities.

The obsession with the commercialization of science at American universities is commonly blamed on the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which encourages university patenting of innovations arising from federal research support. Greenberg correctly dismisses this view as simplistic. Rather, Bayh-Dole is one of an array of factors implicated in a powerful cultural shift within academia. Commercial applications are no longer viewed as an ancillary outcome of research, but rather as both a responsibility of scientists and a central part of the growth strategies of most research universities. Greenberg captures the ambiguity of this cultural change. The traditional belief that useful research is somehow less intellectually worthy is no longer sustainable. But there is a cost, as scientists focus on problems with the potential for more immediate payback, and as the results of university research are increasingly protected by patents and thus excluded from the free marketplace of scientific ideas.

In the second half of the book, Greenberg presents six fascinating interviews with important players in the university-government-corporate scrum, including a scientist who abandoned traditional basic research to pursue the development and commercialization of Taxol, a professor who heads the conflict-of-interest committee at the University of California at San Francisico, and a high-level academic administrator who oversees technology transfer activities at the University of Wisconsin. What emerges is a Rashomon-like picture of the rapidly evolving biomedical research enterprise that complements the earlier chapters.

Of these interviews, the most troubling is that with Drummond Rennie, the deputy editor of JAMA. Journals are on the frontlines of the ethical dilemmas that constitute the heart of Science for Sale, because the act of publishing a research result is also an act of legitimating the integrity, at least, of the science. Rennie states outright that “what we're talking about is the influence of money on research.... And this distorting influence is huge” (pp. 244–245). Especially in the realm of clinical trials, Rennie has little confidence that journals are able to filter out the bias in experimental design and results, or to fully root out conflicts of interest, introduced by the increasingly intimate ties between academic biomedical researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

In the end, the indignation of reform-minded insiders like Rennie apparently allows Greenberg to adopt a guarded optimism: “Overall, for protecting the integrity of science and reaping its benefits for society, wholesome developments now outweigh egregious failings—though not by a wide margin” (p. 258). This view is driven not by confidence in the ideals of autonomous science, but by Greenberg's hard-nosed understanding of the political context. Biomedical researchers and administrators, like all regulated communities, continue to resist government oversight. But the biomedical community also largely recognizes that government funding depends on public support, and that such support can dissolve—although scientists as a whole seem particularly loath to understand themselves as political actors rather than political victims.

Greenberg closes with some worthy suggestions for reform, including stricter enforcement of patenting criteria and a few more radical suggestions, such as using public funds to pay for all drug trials. Above all, he points to the need for an increased commitment to transparency so that the sources of potential bias are there for all to assess. Investigative journalism has long played a crucial role in maintaining this transparency, and Greenberg again proves himself to be the most important practitioner of this craft in the realm of science and technology.

Daniel Sarewitz "Money Talks," BioScience 58(4), 360-361, (1 April 2008). https://doi.org/10.1641/B580415
Published: 1 April 2008
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