Shill gambit: Are geneticists who work for corporations less ethical than university researchers?


Most graduate students face a seemingly endless dilemma: do we select a career in industry or in academia. I started my Ph.D. with the whole-hearted and single-minded purpose of pursuing a career in academia, but with time, I changed my mind.

I have a degree in molecular genetics but work as a senior scientist in product development for a biotech company in California.

Others who have selected the industry path later switch into academics. For me, as with most important life decisions, there was no single reason: I wanted a stable life.

I didn’t want to spend all my time writing grants instead of being at the lab bench, taking maternity leave would set me back in the race to get an academic position, and so on. I made my decision thinking all along that I could switch back to academia if I ever wanted to — and still believe that it would be possible.

However, what I never expected was that selecting a career in the private-sector would make me appear less ethical in the eyes of the public and my moral standards would be questioned. To the eyes of many, I work in a sector that makes drugs to remove arm flab, uses a manufacturing system fueled by slaughtered puppies, tests the drugs on the homeless in Panama, and aims for a survival rate of 30 percent.

The public’s perspective of the evils in the biotech sector aren’t always as overt as Natural News’ recent claims that Monsanto scientists and those who write about the benefits of GMOs are reincarnated Nazis. It’s more often implicit in articles with titles such as “Big Pharma’s dirty secrets” or “What scientists aren’t telling you”. A recent survey published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that 37 percent of Americans believe that the FDA has the cure for cancer and other diseases, but is holding it back due to pressure from pharmaceutical companies. The believers of such myths must necessarily think that those who work in the biotech sector and, by extension, those who regulate the sector and its products are perverse.

For such perceptions to persist, it must necessarily imply that if the biotech sector makes bad products, no one really cares: that our shareholders just buy more and more stocks and the media never reports on it. For such myths to exist, it must imply that big pharma and biotech companies don’t compete against one another; if one company manages to make a vaccine that causes autism, not only do all the other companies stay quiet about it, but they all share the knowledge with one another. It must also imply that employees are never allowed to quit or to take advantage of the federal whistleblower laws.

The truth is that universities do not have a litmus test to measure your ethics. Companies do not have a sorting hat to determine if your moral standards are a proper fit. As such, there are unethical individuals in both areas. More importantly, there are many individuals with a clear sense of what is wrong and right. Science is science. Crummy science can be produced in publically funded labs. Amazing studies can be published by individuals affiliated with an industry. There are many examples of both.

In biotech, and tech in general, industry sectors are becoming more and more inbred; meaning that everyone has worked everywhere. Try finding someone in Silicon Valley who has worked for a single employer! It’s nearly impossible. Yet somehow, people are under the impression that if you work for someone for two to three years at some point in your career, the company owns part of your soul and can summon you to perform dirty work at the drop of a hat. Don’t you want someone who worked at Oracle to fix the database issues at the Veteran’s department? Don’t you want someone who worked at Google to build the next government-funded website? Or do those experiences somehow bring loyalties into question? Then why would someone who worked at Syngenta not be a great candidate to work at the FDA? If you exclude everyone who has worked in industry from working in government, who does that leave? Recent graduates?

There are certain jobs in government and in academia that I would excel at because of the work I’ve done in industry. To dismiss the skills and training of those in industry by virtue of where they were gained, and not because of their quality, is a loss to the public arena.

Layla Katiraee holds a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto. All opinions and views expressed are her own. Her twitter handle is: @BioChicaGMO

  • Alan McHughen

    To answer your question, No. Geneticists who work for industry are no less ethical than university researchers because, it was explained to me in a public lecture recently, university lecturers kow-tow to industry to maintain research funding. And government scientists are also ‘owned’ by industry. So we’re all equally unethical. The only ‘ethical’ geneticists, apparently, work for NGOs. For free.

    • Loren Eaton

      But Alan, don’t NGOs kow-tow for money. What about Greenpeace? They were in some serious financial trouble after the nuclear ‘crisis’ went away. Then came GMOs. Gotta keep scaring people to keep those donations coming in.
      CRIIGEN, Seralini’s outfit, got funding for years from 2 retailers with significant organic (non-GMO) product lines. And yet if you ask the anti-GM types he’s viewed as ‘independent’. What gives?

      • Alan McHughen

        I was merely stating what I was told in a public lecture, by one of the audience. Of course *I* know that professional geneticists — whether they work in academia, government or industry– must maintain high ethical standards. But many of the public aren’t aware of that.

    • First Officer

      Do you work for free?

  • Thomas Sherman

    They are equally ethical and trustworthy.

    However, publishing bias associated with industry scientists is far worse than that associated with academic scientists, which is already a major problem. Its no fault of their own, but its easy to see those that don’t understand how these things work would see it in a negative light.

    • William

      Totally disagree – a lot of academics need to publish a lot (sometimes not very good science) in order to get tenure or promotions or salary increases, and to increase their chances of getting grants. My point is that, just like every profession and every career path for that profession, people make the most of what they have, show the (biased) good side, etc.

      • Bob K

        I agree with William. In industry, you only publish if you have something really cool that you want to share because publishing isn’t the goal – in fact, usually in industry you are discouraged from publishing anything because the bosses don’t want to share trade secrets. You aren’t going to publish crap and say it is something good. That would be a waste of time that could be spent actually coming up with something good! But in academics, publishing is the entire point. If you spend 6 months researching something and it turns out to be crap, you are still pressured to publish something. So the temptation is to lie and say it wasn’t crap. That is why almost ALL cases of fraud in literature comes from academics.

  • Jennie Schmidt MS RD

    BUT if someone from an NGO goes to work say from HSUS to APHIS, they are not held to the same ethical concerns.

  • Brent BT

    One might think that activists would applaud and encourage ethical and transparent behavior from industry scientists who are willing to contribute to the public discussion. Instead, we are shouted down unless we throw our employers under the bus. Significant lack of foresight in their strategy, given that most applied biotechnology must somehow be tested and brought to market by industry.

  • William

    I agree that one can move from academia to industry and vice versa without any issues or changes in your ethics – I have done so. Indeed, I think universities need to hire more former industry people with real world experience.

  • Pedant

    “Everyone has worked everywhere” sounds more like outcrossing than inbreeding.

  • RobertWager

    I like to say if Nuclear engineers that have experience in the power industry are not to be hired at the regulatory agency then who should we hire to inspect/oversee nuclear power plants, plumbers?

    • First Officer

      Why, crystalwrights, of course! They already deal with rays of healing and hope. Rays of radiation couldn’t be much different. :)

  • WeGotta

    There is no difference. Either can be “good” or “bad”.
    A person could be motivated by compassion and love and his or her work will naturally reflect this underlying motivation.
    A person could be motivated by greed, fear or pride and his or her work will reflect this as well.
    Same goes for a private company or a university.
    Same goes for a technology or a tool.

    Each is only as “good” or “bad” as how they are used. If we were truly wise and worthy of such powerful technology we would understand that there are evil things in the world and we would use the full force of science and religion to stamp them out. Only then will we have a chance to solve our greatest problems and reach our full potential as a species.

  • First Officer

    Here here! They never have a good alternative to becoming experts in a field by actually working in that field.

  • Snickers

    There is a comradery that comes from familiarity. It is harder to regulate your friends, people you care about, than people you don’t know. Humans are social creatures and have a preference for the familiar–and such bonding is an evolutionary advantage for group survival. This is the reality of human relationships.

    Ethics demands that regulators do not have personal relationships with those involved in the industry they regulate. Judges must recuse themselves when they have relationships with those involved in a case before the court. One does not supervise a friend or relative in the workplace. In government, we see the undo influence of former bankers trying to regulate the industry, and former legislators becoming lobbyists on K street.

    This is not about ethics of individuals. It is about human nature and the need to have clear boundaries and interpersonal separation between thr regulators and the regulated. Interpersonal relationships between them muddies the water.

  • Wackes Seppi

    In French here:

    Declaration of interests:

    I have an old, old Crop Life T-shirt, a Pioneer-France Maïs pencil and some other small items.