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Business calls the tune in research

Stephanie Pain in London

SCIENTISTS are increasingly being forced to get into bed with big business. The change is partly out of necessity: government funding for research is dropping and scientists have to finance their work.

But it means that where research was once mostly neutral, it now has an array of paymasters to please. In place of impartiality, research results are being discreetly managed and massaged, or even locked away if they don’t serve the right interests. Patronage rarely comes without strings attached.

In theory, it doesn’t seem such a bad idea for scientists to take the money and ignore its origin. After all, who else is going to cough up such large grants in these straitened times? In practice, however, it may not always be so easy to stay in control.

Take the case of Betty Dong at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1989, she and her team were commissioned by an American offshoot of Boots, the British high street pharmacy chain, to compare the performance of its drug Synthroid with cheaper alternatives made by other companies. Synthroid is a treatment for a thyroid disorder and is taken by millions of people every day. Switching to the cheaper drugs could have cut $356-million a year from America’s healthcare bill.

After six years’ research, the Californian scientists concluded that the Boots drug was no better than its cheaper rivals. But just as the study was about to be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Boots stepped in and withdrew the paper, a right laid down in the research contract.

Despite the problems of taking company cash, many scientists find they have no other choice. The British government has made closer links with industry a central plank of its policy for science. In 1993, its science White Paper stressed the need to concentrate on research that would help the economy. Industry was asked to pick out the areas of science that were likely to create wealth in the future. But this approach carries other risks.

Industry in Britain is notorious for its failure to spot future winners. For the most part, it is interested in short-term gain. Research that doesn’t look likely to generate profit soon ends up at the back of the queue.

Researchers note that without such basic research, none of the technologies now taken for granted would exist. “If we look today at things we regard as important, whether we are thinking about recombinant DNA, or microprocessors, or any of the important areas of advanced technology, these areas grew out of what was very, very speculative research conducted 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Sir Derek Roberts, former industrialist and now provost of University College, London.

As science and big business collaborate, some of the ways of free enterprise inevitably rub off. Where researchers once co-operated on projects, now a furtive rivalry has crept in.

Take for example the hunt for a breast cancer gene.In 1989, when researchers around the world started to map the human genome, our genetic blueprint, the project was one of the greatest collaborations science had ever seen. Within two years, however, drug companies had realised that developing just one drug from any of the genes that emerged could be worth billions of dollars, and things changed.

A gene group at the University of Utah set up its own company, Myriad, to exploit the presumptive discovery and stopped sharing its research results. In 1994, Myriad found the gene, called it BRCA1, and filed a patent.

When, in Britain, Mike Stratton, a scientist at the Institute of Cancer Research in Surrey, decided to look for other breast cancer genes without any commercial objective in mind, many researchers agreed to share their data with him and his data was posted on the Internet as soon as it was available.

When Stratton found what he was looking for, he arranged to publish his discovery. But Myriad was also on the trail of the gene, now known as BRCA2, and when his data appeared on the Net, it provided them with the information it was missing. Before Stratton could get into print, Myriad announced the discovery of BRCA2 electronically, scooping him by a day.

“We are working in a changed world,” says Stratton. “Many of us entered into it purely as academics, and we are having to accommodate ourselves to changing practices. Sometimes we find it easier than others.”

— Stephanie Pain is associate editor of New Scientist

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