Shortly after receiving the first patent on a mouse with human cancer genes engineered into its DNA, Harvard University granted exclusive rights to Du Pont.
This patent is only the first of many that will be issued in the future on all manner of flora and fauna. Increasingly our biosphere will be populated by privately owned living organisms created for the sole objective of producing a return on investment.
And it should come as no surprise that university scientists and professors in the field of genetic engineering are being supported by companies that are eager to secure economic gains from university research.
Yet this ever closer linkage with industry is also affecting the values and traditions of the university.
The university has two unique roles in society: conducting the basic research for society and educating the workers and leaders of tomorrow. To conduct this basic research, the university is dependent upon the free and unfettered flow of information. However, the value of the results of this research is creating an environment in which secrecy is increasingly prevalent. For example, one company seeking a patent on cystic fibrosis genes discovered by its university collaborator attempted to keep the location of those genes secret from other researchers. The company's president even announced that his firm "owned" the chromosome on which the gene occurred. Other scientists claim that articles are now being written in such a manner as to assure patent priority.
In this atmosphere of big bucks, secrecy and patents, the normal scientific etiquette of sharing research results and biological materials is being conflated with the economic necessities of companies and professors.
Because of the increasing technical nature of public-policy issues, professors are being called upon more frequently as expert witnesses before legislative committees and in various legal proceedings. Are professors who have a major equity position in a company to be trusted to provide unbiased counsel? Should a professor identify himself as a major financial beneficiary of his research and expertise? Example: Harvard University patented a key component of the AIDS virus, and an exclusive license was awarded to the company that had funded the research. Simultaneously, the scientist--a leading AIDS researcher--holds an equity position in the company worth more than $1 million. Should it matter to the public that many of the university molecular biologists who are providing advice in the battle against AIDS are also actively involved in companies developing AIDS diagnostics and possible therapeutics?
The other important role of a professor is instruction, yet professors are increasingly becoming aware that far more money can be made by starting companies. The results of such activities can be quite perverse. In one case, a graduate student in a prominent West Coast university was informed by his thesis chairman that he could not appoint another professor to his committee because that professor was affiliated with a competitor company. In another variant on this theme, a UC San Diego researcher and Veterans Administration Hospital physician was so busy with his new biotechnology company that they found it necessary to pay another physician to do his hospital rounds.
The usual response to these examples is that they are excesses and can be controlled by self-policing. However, there there are no effective mechanisms for self-policing. The increased linkages between university professors and industry are often touted as contributing to the improvement of U.S. competitiveness. Unfortunately for those holding this view, European and Japanese companies are equally adept at purchasing access to U.S. university scientists. For example, there are large contracts between West Germany's Hoechst Corp. and Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital, Great Britain's Glaxo Pharmaceuticals and the University of North Carolina, Japan's Chugai Pharmaceuticals and the Medical University of South Carolina. Foreign companies are more than happy to invest in American universities. Wrapping university-industry relationships in the flag offers little if any explanation for their growth nor does it provide a sustainable justification.
Encouraging the sale of access to university laboratories and the students and researchers therein for research monies, overhead and possible royalties constitutes a serious challenge to the university as an independent institution. Many laboratories formally producing knowledge for all in society--consumers, workers, farmers and business people--have become corporate-captive.
The result is that the freely available knowledge base is shrunk and there is decreased access to information for those unable to purchase it.