Bitter Pills

The AIDS drug Ziagen has brought healthy windfalls to the University of Minnesota and GlaxoSmithKline. But it isn't doing anything at all for the millions who are dying of the disease in Africa.

"There will always be people who say that the university is such an ivory tower that we're wasting time and money on research that doesn't mean anything in the real world," Rotenberg goes on. "And there'll always be people who say the university is too sensitive to issues of politics and the market. There's got to be a balance."

Two decades after its enactment, some observers have begun to wonder if Bayh-Dole hasn't tipped that balance irrevocably. Dragging science out of the ivory tower and into the marketplace, they argue, has had the corollary effect of transforming America's research universities into profit-driven enterprises. If Bayh-Dole invited the moneylenders into the temple of pure science, skeptics now see a situation in which the temple itself has gone into the money-lending business.

Philip Regal, a U of M ecology professor and longtime critic of university privatization, considers the focus on commercializing research symptomatic of current trends in academia. "This is a general systemic problem," Regal says. "There's an ongoing effort to leverage educational institutions into the service of corporate interests. It's happening everywhere. That doesn't necessarily make it right, though.

"In theory, universities are gaining power with these deals. They have a position of leverage," Regal continues. "But they don't have any moral spine, because they're in bed with corporations."


Jeffrey Kahn, director of the U of M's Center for Bioethics, says the debate over the school's deal with Glaxo may be the tip of a bigger iceberg. "This is an example of the kind of issues that come up when universities have a financial stake in the products they develop," Kahn asserts. "It's a species of a larger issue: The question is whether the institutional mission is in conflict with incentives for profitability."

Corporate partnerships have obvious advantages for cash-strapped universities, concedes Ronald Collins, director of the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Project for Integrity in Science. But these financial relationships, Collins argues, introduce a host of sticky ethical issues. "A university or a department within a university has an intellectual agenda," he says. "When a department or professor becomes heavily dependent on corporate funding, that can potentially define their intellectual agenda.

"It's not like corporate funders come in and say, 'Research whatever you want and we don't care about the results,'" Collins explains. "If there's no money in X, then they're not going to fund research in that area. Science is being directed by profitability."

And corporate ties can infringe on academic freedom, Collins maintains, particularly when they come in the form of exclusive agreements that keep researchers from publishing their work or sharing trade secrets. As an example he cites the case of James Kahn, a researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. In 1999 Kahn was conducting early clinical tests on a promising HIV vaccine called HIV-1 Immunogen, which was produced under the trade name Remune. His research was supported in part by the drug's manufacturer, Immune Response Corporation, which had signed a contract with the university for clinical testing of its product. There was only one problem: Kahn discovered that Remune didn't work.

When he and his colleagues attempted to publish their findings, Immune Response tried to force Kahn into altering his data to make the clinical trial look less damning. Kahn refused, and the company sued him, arguing that a negative study would disclose proprietary information. Kahn published anyway. In turn, Immune Response published its own clinical data to refute his findings. To observers of the case, which has yet to be resolved, the lesson is clear: The ethics of business and the ethics of science mix like gasoline and water. "If industry is a coequal partner with government, should we give up the illusion that the academic-research side is pure and admit that it is going to be part of the market?" asked University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan in the May issue of The Scientist.

Sheldon Krimsky, an urban studies professor at Tufts University who has studied university-industry relationships extensively, cites statistics demonstrating the increasing prevalence of corporate largess: In 1992 universities received a total of $1.28 billion in private support; by 1999 that number had climbed to $2.05 billion. "The downside to all this is that researchers have to wear several hats," says Krimsky. "They're expected to be both disinterested scientists and entrepreneurs. And those two things can come into conflict more often than we like."

In 1996 Krimsky examined the 14 leading scientific journals and made a startling discovery: In 34 percent of the 900 articles he reviewed, he found that the authors had a financial stake in their research--either through corporate sponsorship, a patent on the work, or equity in a company developing their research for market. And in almost no cases were those financial ties disclosed.

Bayh-Dole, Krimsky contends, set off an "intellectual property gold rush," during which corporations have ransacked the ivory tower. Scientists themselves are no longer simply under pressure to publish their work; they are compelled to patent and sell it. Furthermore, he argues, though Bayh-Dole was intended as an economic impetus, it may actually be impeding competitiveness by giving corporations monopolies over vast areas of science and technology. "It's an odd turnaround from competitive capitalism: The public is taking all the risks and the benefits are channeling into the private sector," says the professor. "With pharmaceuticals, the question is whether the public is paying [for research] twice."

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