A current growth industry is the organisation of meetings between scientists and those who are often referred to as ‘society’. Behind the complicated but often stimulating discussions these meetings engender lies a profound schism between those close to science and technology and those who feel disenfranchised by it. There are many possible causes for this, including cryptic language, arrogance, different ethical perspectives, concern for the survival of life as we know it, conservatism, etc. However, I believe there is one particular aspect which may be at the core of the problem: money.
A recent development in the life sciences is that research has become very expensive. This has multiple consequences. To maintain a research group, we scientists have had to develop new skills to convince politicians that more money should be provided for our work, which has moved science onto the agendas of cabinets worldwide. Nations are proud or self‐conscious about the percentage of GDP they spend on research. Those countries with a high level of funding do so in the expectation that it is an investment that will bring rewards in terms of sophisticated industry with jobs and consequential financial gains. We have learned how to play this game and, even when we defend basic research, we often wrap it in the long‐term promise of better healthcare in the future.
With the combination of research as the pipeline for products, and the increasing needs for funding it, industry has become a significant player in this development. As for most aspects of life, this has both good and bad sides to it. The good aspects, obviously, are that without industry the accumulation of knowledge would be the sole outcome of science. The importance of research to civilisation cannot be overstressed but there must be a ceiling to the price that society is willing to pay for a detailed wire circuit of an organism. The mixing of science, politics and industry has given rise to new therapeutic compounds and the extra funding has driven forward progress to goals that even very recently seemed to be the topic of science fiction. Consequently, society has high expectations of scientists to cure all of its ailments. The downside of the pervasive presence of industry is that previously solid foundations are becoming disturbed. Today's scientists are both academics and entrepreneurs, and universities and institutes are components of the business world.
Moreover, scientists themselves now have the possibility to benefit financially with some of us earning large amounts of money through royalty payments, share options or as founders of biotech companies. We therefore land in an era of great confusion. Society both depends upon, and increasingly distrusts, us and our motives. This distrust is linked, in my opinion, to the fact that we have a conflict of interest that is rarely highlighted. We need money for our research, while we promote science as a good for all, as if we were disinterested parties. Increasingly, fame and fortune await the best researchers and these attractants are powerful motivators to drive forward research and careers. Furthermore, because of government policies, we have become an extension of the ‘capitalistic machinery’ that still draws a lot of criticism. We have come a long way from the harmless ‘gentlemen academics’ of the last century. In extreme cases, it would even be appropriate to use the labels ‘dishonest’ and ‘hypocritical’ to describe some scientists' behaviour.
As we allow conflicting motives to influence our actions or even their presentation, there is a clear dilemma: our work helps and it is needed but the new coalition that is necessary to deliver the benefits may be undermining the credibility of our profession. If this is the core problem of today's conflict between biotechnology and society, the obvious ‘solution’ would be to exclude industry from the academic world. This would require governments to cover all the costs of research, stop looking for industrial partners and provide universities with sufficient funds to continue research on their own. A moment's reflection shows this to be impracticable and undesirable. And even if it happened, it would give rise to a new layer of questions, as decisions of the government would inevitably result in some areas being favoured and others stalled.
Alternatively, all scientists could be banned from acting as consultants, board members or founders of companies, with their university salary as their only income. Again, the consequences are predominantly negative even if it would neutralise criticism. Companies use leading scientists as consultants presumably because they provide helpful advice that leads to better products. Start‐up companies, where the suited and tie‐wearing founder was a mere scientist the day before, are important motors of many countries‘ economies and provide high‐quality jobs. Stopping this train of events is an impossible ‘solution’ too.
We could do better without resorting to such draconian measures. For instance, we could be more transparent by indicating any conflicts of interest. A scientist who owns a company, or is dependent on one, should make this known because it may influence her or his presentation of results. But simply being a consultant to some company is often less relevant and the fact that a scientist has or had a connection with a company should not automatically disqualify or cast doubt on her or his opinion. Indeed, there are very few scientists today who do not have links with industry. Whether this might be a good or bad development is a question that has to be answered in the future, but transparency seems to be a first step to overcome society's distrust in science and scientists.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization