|SCIENCE AND CENTS|
October 20, 1997
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Questions answered in this forum:
What exactly can scientists patent? Should we limit people's right to patent discoveries? How do you balance the need for long-term research versus the need for profits? Do politics affect scientific activities? What are the underlying economic and institutional issues? Viewer Comments.
February 24, 1997
Scientists clone an adult mammal for the first time.
January 1, 1997
Paul Solman reviews a banner year for gene research.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Science.
Biotechnology Industry Organization
Lynn McQueen of Chapel Hill, NC, asks:
I am concerned about the problem addressed here (patents and scientists). This is alarming because it is part of an ongoing trend of increased influence from interests beyond the discovery of scientific evidence. Recent articles and editorials by Iglehart, Woolf & Lawrence, Deyo and others describe how science is increasingly influenced by politics in many different ways. These articles describe the problem very well and give many examples (such as Senator Spector holding up NIH funding until the mammography guidelines were changed by NCI or a small group of fringe spinal surgeons trying to abolish AHCPR funding) but finding out how to cope with this problem is proving harder than identifying it.
My Question: what factors influence the interference of politics into scientific activities? If it is true that pursuing a patent is a potential source of bias, then what can the public, other scientists (e.g. peer reviewers), professional groups and others look for in order to assess the degree of contamination? What do we look for to know if a study has been biased by outside interests? If people agree that this is a problem, what can be done and who takes action? Thanks. I am glad that you're tackling such a tricky topic.
Dr. Bloom of Science replies:Again I find the question a bit hard to comprehend, but one might as well ask "what factors influence the interference of politics into... any process?" and generally that's when a political leader decides the public good is being threatened or deprived by an ongoing trend -- like cloning sheep or abortions to provide cells for brain transplants. Personally, I don't see why having a discovery that leads to a product that is patented is necessarily a sources of intellectual contamination. Existing regulations require disclosure by both authors and reviewers of financial conflicts of interest, and most such conflicts are matters of public records; at the same time with the federal research support funds failing to meet the opportunities that prior work now presents, research done within start-up, publicly-marketed companies is competing for publication space in our leading journals. The patent process is in principle good for the public and good for the company that invests to bring a discovery to market. Competitive market forces then govern.
Prof. Eisenberg of the Univ. of Michigan replies:
Your question reminds me of the adage that there's no such thing as a free lunch. Science costs money, and it is difficult for institutions that depend on outside funding sources to avoid being coopted by the interests of their benefactors. If funding comes from industry, one wonders if an investigator's claims are influenced by the commercial interests of the sponsor in selling a particular product. If funding comes from the government, political considerations inevitably enter into the appropriations process.
Plainly it would be counterproductive to cut researchers off from these sources of funds in order to avoid contamination. Nonetheless, the scientific community might be able to cultivate a healthy skepticism by developing stronger norms in favor of disclosing relationships that could potentially influence an investigator. Unfortunately, scientists tend to deny their own biases to the point of being offended by the suggestion that they should disclose such matters as financial relationships with firms having an interest in their research claims. Universities, funding agencies, and journals could play an important role in promoting full disclosure of institutional affiliations and financial interests that bear on an investigator's research.
What are the underlying economic and institutional issues?