By Josh Nicholson
The curiosity of man pushes us to ask questions, and we count on science for the knowledge to answer them.
But what has long been the driving force behind our questions is now accompanied by another factor: profit. In this day and age, money has increasingly dictated the direction and purpose of a significant amount of the world’s scientific research.
Universities profit from patents under what is called a license agreement. This consists of the licensee being granted access to an early-stage invention that is protected by a university’s patent.
The UC system’s revenue from these license agreements with industry in 2006 amounted to $210 million. UC Santa Cruz was responsible for $306,000 of this, the smallest contribution of the 10 UC campuses other than UC Merced.
Michael Alvarez, director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, explained, “Publications are one form of letting people know what you’re doing, patenting is another.”
If this is the case, then the University of California is doing a great job of cluing people into its research: the UC has received more patents than any other university in the world.
Patenting has become more frequent since 1980, when the Bayh-Doyle Act was passed, shifting control of patenting from the federal government to universities and private organizations.
In 1980 the federal government held title to approximately 28,000 patents. Less than five percent of these were licensed to industry.
The reason for this small percentage is that prior to the Bayh-Doyle Act, federal patents allowed anyone to acquire the rights, making it impossible for a company to have exclusive rights to manufacture and sell a product or products.
The goal of this unification of industry and academia is to turn basic research into practical applications, faster; to transform basic research that is not aimed at specific commercial markets or end products into a structured forum that will produce such end products.
“The ‘invisible science’ that taxpayer dollars produce in university laboratories should be made visible,” said David Deamer, professor of biomolecular engineering at UCSC.
In the past, Deamer has received research support from biotechnology companies such as Agilent, and he said that there are many ways to avoid conflicts of interest when receiving money from private, corporate sources.
Alvarez explained that industry and academia have been interacting now for 200 to 300 years. It is “a constructive and worthwhile relationship,” he said.
Emphasizing Deamer’s point, Alvarez said, “From bedside to the lab and the lab to the bedside” — meaning that consumers influence the research being done so that a useful product is produced, such as a medicine taken at bedside. Alvarez does not see the corporate entity as a hindrance to the work of scientists, rather it just redefines the nature of their work.
But the increased funding, whether from private organizations and corporations or the government itself, has had adverse effects in the past.
For example, the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) budget doubled from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $27.2 billion in 2003 in hopes of further advancing science. But according to Dr. Brian Martinson, senior researcher of Minnesota’s Health Partner Research Foundation, the increase in funds has not garnered a massive incline in cutting-edge research results, as the NIH had hoped.
Because scientific research tampers with the unknown, it is inherently risky, he said. But when the bottom line includes a dollar sign, “Why would [junior scientists] be in a position to take risks and come up with creative ideas?” Martinson asked. “They are going to come up with something safe, something they can get funded, because they need to get a grant to keep their job.”
He continued, “We’ve asked these people to absorb enormous risks, to make enormous investments in their time, their finances, their energies in just simply getting the training to obtain a Ph.D., and now we’re putting them in a situation where we’re saying, ‘Now the odds of you getting a position and getting funded are dicey at best.’”
In 2005, Dr. Eric T. Poehlman felt this pressure and competition, and as a result made some poor decisions.
Poehlman, a highly acclaimed professor in his field of metabolism at the University of Vermont, falsified and fabricated data in order to receive federal grants from the NIH. This decision cost him one year in prison.
The grants he received on this tainted data amounted to $2.9 million worth of taxpayer’s money, much of which he was ordered by the court to pay back.
During his sentencing hearing, Poehlman explained his actions by saying, “I had placed myself, in all honesty, in a situation, an academic position in which the amount of grants that you held basically determined one’s self-worth.”
This immense competition for university funding has pushed researchers farther away from government funding and into the arms of private industries. But this alternative source of funding is not without risk either, and although one may escape the pressures to publish, they take on the pressure to patent.
A message on the website for the UC Office of Technology Transfer states, “A technology transfer program structured around royalty-bearing licenses, rather than patent title assignment, helps motivate university scientists to pursue breakthrough discoveries.”
In other words, money motivates science.
It may sound clear enough, but the situation is complicated by the fact that money often incites other motivations as well.
Though scientists face the pressure of conforming to corporate interests to gain funds, UCSC professor Harry Noller said, “academic science comes first.”
Noller, who co-founded biotech company Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, explained, “Academic research influences the progress of the biotech company and is often responsible for major advances in things like antibiotics.”
However, he continued, “Sometimes discoveries at the biotech company turn around and benefit the academic science.”
Today’s scientists face many pressures: the pressure to publish papers in famous scientific journals, the pressure to get funding, and the pressure to gain prestige within the scientific community.
But as scientific endeavors move toward closer relationships with corporations, will the dictum “publish or perish” turn into “profit or perish”? The drive for increasing scientific funding may have its benefits, but it does not come without risks, as Martinson asserted.
“We should not expect [scientists] to have the same incentive to engage in the kind of risk-taking behavior that may lead to major breakthroughs,” he said.
Martinson questioned the worth of corporate dollars: “I think this process has a real tendency to drive innovation out.”