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Why are scientists vilified when they profit from their innovations?

“Evolution right now is in the market place,” Harvard geneticist and transhumanist poster boy George Church told an MIT conference recently. The Economist quoted Church in the context of altering humans to solve the problems a growing population creates in the world.

But Pete Shanks at Huffington Post chose to quote Church in the title of a piece in which he tries to insinuate that all of the researcher’s accomplishments and future ideas are dulled in some way by the fact he might make money off of them.

Shanks points out, as does The Economist’s correspondent, that Church is a founder of 12 biotech companies which have largely sprung out of his laboratory work at Harvard. Some of them are pretty out there, including bringing back extinct species:

Dr Church thinks that woolly mammoths could help prevent the Arctic permafrost from melting. Their grazing would invigorate the flora growing on the surface, which would provide more protection from the sun. His laboratory is developing a robotic system called multiplex automated genome engineering (MAGE) that can perform up to 50 different genome alterations at nearly the same time, creating billions of variants in a matter of hours. MAGE would allow scientists to start with an intact genome of a living Asian elephant and change it wholesale into one that is comparable to an extinct mammoth, using information pieced together from frozen fragments of mammoths.

But others, like the $100 genome, are fast approaching and will be marketable technologies soon, whether Church and his colleagues profit off of them or leave someone else to capitalize.

So why should Church and researchers like him who move between the world of academia and private sector businesses be differently accountable?  In Shanks’ view, it’s either a mix of the fact that some of Church’s ideas read like science fiction — he gives several examples in his post, possibly alleging some sort of intellectual theft — or because the subject matter Church takes on is so epic that capitalism should be trivialized in comparison:

But [Church] does have a very capitalist orientation, leading him to tell the magazine, “We’re well beyond Darwinian limitations to evolution. Evolution right now is in the marketplace.” Church is expressing here an odd combination of hubris and passivity. His ambition takes him “beyond Darwinian limitations” — he can casually discard a few billion years of evolution — and yet he is irresistibly bound to the current economic system. He has that the wrong way round.

But Church’s humanity-oriented ideas aren’t different in spirit than what already happens in the world of healthcare. Every drug that comes out of academic development and ends up with an iconic TV ad followed the same path. Remember those bathtubs? So do CT scanners and MRI machines and patents on breast cancer genes.

Shanks quotes Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s new book that alleges the optimists might not have it right when it comes to transhumanist technologies. He writes that the availability of extreme anti-aging, gene altering and brain uploading technologies will further indemnify our classicist systems, where the very rich have access and the poor must comparatively suffer. But again, that happens everyday in our modern healthcare system. Rich people can afford to replace teeth when they lose them; poor people are often left to change how they smile.

The status quo is decidedly unjust, but shuttling pointed comments about George Church’s bank accounts back and forth across the internet is not going to change that. If Shanks’ message is that those on the cutting edge of biology have a  moral obligation to make these emerging technologies available and affordable to everyone, he should just say that.

Meredith Knight is editor of the human genetics section for Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science and health writer in Austin, Texas. Follow her @meremereknight.

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9 thoughts on “Why are scientists vilified when they profit from their innovations?”

  1. Excellent point made. Reality is that if you don’t spend time in the marketplace, your discoveries and understanding have probably not yet found a useful application for solving human problems or meeting human needs. If I am not mistaken, this is at least one of the reasons the Federal government grnts funding to researchers. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for basic research and don’t think every scientific finding has to be applied to be useful. But the public needs to be confronted with their double standards when it comes to research. In essence, the message scientists often get is, “your findings better be useful,” and at the same time, “if you go out and turn your findings into a product (something useful), we won’t trust your expertise any more!” The amazing thing is that real scientists are suspect but alternative quacks are implicitly trusted when they tell folks to go buy their own products!

  2. I think back to when Herbert W. Boyer co-founded Genentech Corporation. Working for Genentech, David Goeddel recognized that insulin was difficult to come by; pharmaceutical companies were only able to obtain it by extracting it from the pancreases of barnyard animals, and, from each animal, they could extract very little. Fortunately, Goeddel employed the resources that Boyer helped avail to him to create human insulin through genetic engineering. They were able to use E. coli bacteria cells as factories that produced steady quantities of human insulin to treat diabetics. This process made insulin more widely available. In exchange for using this new method — which, if not for Genentech, might not have been developed as early in history — licensee Eli Lilly paid royalties to Genentech.

    The royalties were a cost to Eli Lilly but, on a net balance, the development of this new technology helped Eli Lilly realize net savings in cost. Using E. coli cells to produce large quantities of insulin was cheaper than getting small quantities from pig pancreases. This process lowered Eli Lilly’s costs and allowed Eli Lilly to take its cost savings and invest those savings into the production of other medicines. On account of these enterprises, Genentech prospered, and Dr. Boyer earned over $10 million. I consider this justice.

    Yes, I do think scientists should be able to patent and monetize the treatments they develop, without which our world would be worse off. When Dr. Boyer earns one million U.S. dollars, it is because Genentech’s clients, in total, valued Boyer’s services as an innovator more than they valued the cumulative one million dollars they gave him. If the clients, in aggregate, valued the $1 million more than they valued Dr. Boyer’s services, they would not have paid him $1 million in exchange for his services.

  3. Why this is even an issue is beyond my comprehension. If I make some innovation that increases the profit on my farm. I will profit. Same principle applies. Those who think profit automatically compromised morals and evil need to wake up. With out profit there is poverty.

  4. Jeff Koons holds the record for selling the most expensive piece of art to date from a living artist, himself. He is good. But, why don’t we expect him and those in other professions to also just give away their innovations? Why is Vandan Shiva charging $40,000 plus business class expenses while the anti-gmoer’s jump down Kevin Folta’s throat for being just reimbursed for a scrunched coach seat?

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-13/koons-s-puppy-sets-58-million-record-for-living-artist

  5. $65 Billion dollar organic food industry profits doesn’t it? Whole foods makes almost as much as Monsanto so why is one good and the other bad wrt profits?

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