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Public Policy and Research Support


The following article provided the basis for a discussion at the weekly lunch meeting of the Center for Science in Society at Bryn Mawr College, and is provided here, with permission of the author, to encourage continuing conversation about important public policy issues relating to the support of research. Readers are invited to review an outline and synopsis of the initial discussion, and to contribute to an ongoing forum conversation on public policy issues related to research support.

Biotech and the Watchdog Role of Universities

Fred L. Bookstein
Washington Post, July 30, 2001

My university, like many others, is establishing a Life Sciences Institute to speed applications of new biotech research. The current academic understanding of how genes and proteins work together promises to lead soon to combinations of drugs that are customized patient by patient and to new therapies for inherited metabolic disorders.

But getting these insights from the laboratory to the marketplace is apparently going to require universities to step up their collaboration with corporations, especially multinational pharmaceutical firms. This will represent an enormous structural change in academia, one whose supposed benefits ought to be studied with the same cultivated skepticism that is applied to scientific work.

The century-old core of the academic life sciences consists of comparative anatomy, physiology and development of organisms, evolutionary history, environmental biology and systematics (the classification of living beings). It covers the patterns in living systems, from molecules through ecosystems, on time scales from microseconds to a billion years of evolution. The universities' primary job has been to organize this knowledge (in disciplines) and to preserve it (in libraries) so that details of any living creature--past, present or to come--might be embedded in the broadest possible explanatory framework. By building these theories, life scientists made genomics possible.

But genomics deals with what works or doesn't work--with machines and mechanisms. In the absence of theories wrestling with data--the challenge that developed evolutionary biology itself--genomic studies amount to mere technological puzzle-solving. They give back nothing to the intellectual world that spawned them--nothing except market profit.

In place of the collective search for ever-more powerful explanations, their new view of the life sciences would change the focus to proprietary craft knowledge--knowledge that can be owned and held confidentially. This kind of knowledge has no proper role within the academy, an institution centered around the permanent curriculum of arts and sciences and traditionally unconcerned with secrecy--or with capital gains.

The mission of life science institutes emphasizes manipulation and control. Academic sciences, by contrast, are about understanding. For example, engineering colleges don't market civil engineering or automotive designs. They develop and strengthen theories about these things as they teach or criticize current practice. Similarly, universities are unlikely to be competent in generating and spreading market-oriented molecular knowledge. Their appropriate function is different.

Within the domain of what the university knows well--the enduring concerns of the growth, development and diversity of organisms--we have one most critical assignment (after teaching). It is to determine and set forth what the consequences of current understanding will be for future scientific and social developments.

In considering the areas where the life sciences institutes will concentrate their work, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they will only heighten the contradictions at the root of contemporary Western medicine, with possibly disastrous consequences. For example, improving models of surgery, or new acute interventions for chronic diseases--two domains of such institutes--cannot deal with diseases of age, poverty, lifestyle, environment, overpopulation or evolution. The cost of "therapy" for one extremely premature baby would cover 10,000 pediatric immunizations. The cost of bringing forth yet another drug for springtime allergies could cover advances in tropical medicine that would prevent millions of premature deaths.

Bodies vary one from another, and they fail and die. But the life sciences institutes arise from a "medicalization" of health that would deny this. They would perpetuate our overinvestment in an unending, unproductive extension of severely damaged lives. And they would exacerbate our appalling stratification by income and education and lead to an ever-increasing gap in quality of lives across the world.

Whether they succeed or fail in their marketing efforts, life sciences institutes cannot help fostering the obsessions at the root of designer genes and pharmaceuticals. Concerns about a good life and a good death are replaced by unworthy fears for one's own body or one's own progeny. Encouraging this philosophy of hazard-free perfection, with its implications of fetal selection, cannot be an appropriate academic activity.

The cost of sacrificing familiar norms of scientific openness and disinterest to the "commodification" of knowledge--to letting the market decide what is honorable scholarship--hugely outweighs any scholarly benefit that life sciences institutes could provide to the academic sciences.

The proper role for universities at a time of intellectual stampede such as the impending rush to the applied genomic sciences should be uncompromisingly skeptical. Centuries from now, one hopes, there will still be academics, who, when looking back on our time, likely will find our genomic data bases to be so many 21st century pyramids, wonderful in their meaninglessness.

Now, more than ever in the history of biology, the role of the university must be to warn. The goals of today's life science institutes are economically, intellectually and academically incoherent. Universities need to return to their accustomed distance from economic fashions in the pursuit of knowledge and speak out against these developments, not embrace them in complicity. America's great universities should have nothing to do with the building of pyramids instead of life sciences.

Fred L. Bookstein is distinguished senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute of Gerontology.

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