By Owen-Smith, Jason
Academe , Vol. 90, No. 4
Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research?
Sheldon Krimsky. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003
Sheldon Krimksy inspires deep discomfort about the state of academic biomedicine in Science in the Private Interest: Has the Lure of Profits Corrupted Biomedical Research? In chapter after chapter, he documents stunning venality, malfeasance, and questionable behavior of all kinds by researchers and their institutions. He links the cases he cites to an overarching concern about commercial endeavors that have transformed the "ethical norms of scientific and medical researchers."
Krimsky believes commercialization distorts the ethical bases of biomedical research by introducing chronic conflicts of interest that drive increasing secrecy, biased findings, and a shrinking knowledge commons. Such outcomes are indeed cause for concern. But Krimsky argues that public-interest science-whose efficacy requires individual and institutional autonomy in support of the disinterested pursuit of knowledge-is the real casualty of academic capitalism.
Ethics warped by the lure of profit and institutional accommodations to commodified science taint our society's wellspring of knowledge, the university, Krimsky writes, endangering our "pure reservoir for dispassionate and independent critical analysis." Moreover, doubts about the autonomy and disinterestedness of the university and its researchers undermine the credibility of scientists when they speak out on matters of public concern.
The university's critical role as agent provocateur "is the sum total of its faculty who choose to exercise academic freedom for the benefit of society." Fiscal interests, corporate pressure, and new standards for commercially viable research make faculty entrepreneurs feel less committed to the public welfare than to the norms of commerce.
Krimsky advocates strict segregation between the academic and the economic roles of faculty researchers and separation of the university and commercial institutions as a means to resuscitate public science. For Krimsky, reestablishing traditional roles and boundaries is the only sure way to prohibit conflicts of interest and to maintain academic autonomy.
I do not believe that the actual situation is as dismal as the picture Krimsky paints. But he does us a service by highlighting the very real perils of commercialization. I worry, however, about the potential consequences of Krimsky's solution. Attempting to enforce a state of affairs that may be idealized could cost the university its relevance and even its ability to generate new biomedical knowledge.
Science, especially cutting-edge biomedical science, draws increasingly on vast resources from both the public and the private sectors. In a recent editorial in Science, Donald Kennedy, the journal's editor-in-chief, notes a growing convergence across the interests, capacities, and practices of public and proprietary science. He calls for the adoption of "a biomedical research strategy combining the creativity and individual skill of traditional publicly funded programs with the technology investment and team tradition of the commercial sector." In the world Kennedy describes, policies that respond to conflicts of interest by prohibiting cross-sector collaboration may dry the well for fear of poisoning it.
Much biomedical science relies on collaboration. The know-how, technologies, skills, and resources needed rarely reside under a single roof. Consequently, the very relationships that threaten Krimsky's public-interest science may be essential to academic research endeavors in basic biomedicine. In fact, I believe that the institutional and organizational arrangements that increasingly support these endeavors can underpin an expanded conception of science for the public good, where efficacy stems from engagement rather than separation. …