Science, Profit, and Society

Science, Profit, and Society March 26, 2018

Is science for improving our lives or enabling neoliberal profiteers?

In their book Genes, Cells, and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology, Hilary and Steven Rose describe the way science has become the profiteers’ playground in the new millennium. Their description of the last few decades of scientific progress in genomics, stem-cell research, and neuroscience is a sobering account of greed, fraud, and political cynicism that will dismay anyone who still thinks science is a disinterested quest for truth. In this essay, I’ll focus on their analysis of genomics.

The End of Collectivism

The Reagan-Thatcher 80s were only the first step away from a collectivist vision for Western society. In the neoliberal Clinton-Blair 90s, individualist ideology motivated the dismantling of the welfare state and provided fuel for the free market. At the same time, technology was being developed by biotech firms that aimed to provide the medical establishment with a better understanding of how disease worked. DNA was touted as the key to disease and deviance. Scientific progress promised to contribute to the health not only of the population but the economy as well.

Genomics for Fun and Profit

The Human Genome Project developed in this time frame: the prospect of sequencing the entire human genome, rather than simply mapping traits to genes, was touted as the beginning of a Golden Age of health and prosperity. Scientists promised cures for everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s would follow.

Of course, that didn’t happen, for reasons the authors explain patiently and in detail. Shortly after Clinton and Blair jointly celebrated the completion of the project—which cost billions of taxpayers’ dollars—private companies started buying up patents on genes. by the time a US Supreme Court ruling stopped the patenting of genes, some 20% of the human genome was owned by corporations.

The scam had begun.

Neoliberal Biology

The neoliberal ideology, with its emphasis on individualism and consumer choice, remade the genomics industry into an attractive business proposition for the new life-science entrepreneurs. Cures for disease weren’t their chief focus; rather, it was to “discover disease-related genes, explore their function and market this knowledge.” In the process, the taxpayer would assume the risk while the businesses reaped the rewards. And circumventing regulation became a competitive priority, whereby bio-businesses incorporated or operated where local laws were more conducive to private-sector enterprises.

The economics of gene research wasn’t the only thing redefined by the new breed of bio-entrepreneurs. Disease and deviance were now subject to a reductionist mindset that conceptualized them merely as functions of gene expression. This new conception of disease de-emphasizes environmental or socioeconomic factors. Society can now deny collective responsibility for physical and mental illness and remedying the social inequities that contribute to them, while the science-generated product of medical treatment confers wellness for a market-driven price.

Putting the Buy Into Bioinformatics

During the 2000’s, bioinformatics became all the rage. Companies appealed to countries with formerly robust national health services (such as Iceland and the UK) to build databases using information about the health and genes of citizens. The information could then be used to target at-risk citizens and tailor treatment to their needs (and ability to pay) rather than have a one-size-fits-all national health care system. The corporations were leveraging the information gathered from decades of welfare-state operation; however, the aim wasn’t the health of the community but the commodification of its health care. Consumer medical attention replaced the old universal health care system.

The problem was that, after the human genome was completely sequenced, scientists began to realize how complicated genetic processes are. Most diseases are caused not by one or a few genes, but by the complex interaction of scores of genes. One of the principal architects of the Human Genome Project, molecular geneticist Eric Lander, described the dismaying reality of the human genome thus:

We’ve called the human genome the blueprint, the Holy Grail, all sorts of things. It’s a parts list. If I gave you the parts list for the Boeing 777, and it has 100,000 parts, I don’t think you could screw it together, and you certainly wouldn’t understand how it flew.

This unforeseen complexity meant that biobanks had to depend on the participation of large percentages of the population to ensure a comprehensive analysis of risk factors, but many citizens opted out because of concerns over privacy. The costs of collecting and analyzing genetic data turned out to exceed the biobanks’ estimates by orders of magnitude, necessitating even more input of public funds.

Who Benefits?

Biobanks like deCode in Iceland and UK Biobank in Great Britain ended up delivering products that fell far short of their promises to governments and citizens. Their chief entrepreneurs became celebrities, and certain of their investors received dividends. However, they failed to enrich public health or reinforce a collective vision of responsibility for well being.

Pharma corporations are now faced with skyrocketing costs for testing and developing new drugs, and have responded in true neoliberal fashion by shutting down research facilities and rebranding old drugs to be prescribed for new maladies:

To maintain sales, Pharma turns turns to its established practice of finding new targets for pre-existing compounds. One way to do so is to create a new disease category for which the drug is said to be effective, as in the case of ‘Panic Disorder’ after 9/11.

The scam continues.

What do you think? Isn’t science too important to the future of society and human well-being to be used for profit?

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  • Anthrotheist

    This reminds me of the old saying, “knowledge is power.” Unfortunately, while it is a nice catch-phrase, it isn’t quite precise enough to be truly useful. More precisely it is, “knowledge is a necessary prerequisite condition for the effective exercise of existing or potential power.” Not as catchy, I know. The point is, having all the knowledge in the world does nothing to empower someone who has zero capacity to exercise their existing potential (imagine an all-knowing coma patient).

    The Human Genome Project was an amazing effort that produced an enormous amount of knowledge. As the article points out, it also clarified just how limited this new knowledge was without further studies into not only gene sequences, but gene interactions and epigenetics (studying changes in gene expression and not just changes to genes). More importantly, though, this knowledge naturally served existing power structures instead of magically redistributing social power.

    At this point I honestly don’t know if there is a solution to the problem of social inequality, exemplified as it is in capitalism. I am certain that science is incapable of providing one; science is a tool, and essentially unconcerned with discerning moral judgments. It will continue to be used by capitalism, and could prove useful to an alternate structure if and when it was conceived. I’m sure I’ll catch flack for saying this, but finding solutions to problems of moral judgment requires a careful study of Philosophy. It brought us science (eventually), it can bring us other useful tools and systems as well.

  • You won’t get any flak from me for saying moral reasoning requires philosophy. But the science-is-just-a-tool canard is one that’s always rubbed me the wrong way.

    Matters like these demonstrate that science isn’t just a tool, it plays a social role. It’s a communal activity that’s undertaken for particular reasons. If the motivation for scientific research is mere corporate return on investment, how good is that for society in the long run?

  • Anthrotheist

    I see what you are saying, and it is intriguing. It seems to me that you are arguing that science has grown to the point now of being a social institution (in the sociological sense) independent of education. That would put it in the same type of realm as government, economy, and even religion in terms of social inter-connectivity and power distribution. I think that is a very interesting notion, and one that seems to have the potential for useful unpacking.

    My main point was be to consider what the current dominant social institution in society is (America for me: where I live). I can’t help but feel that currently, economics wields the majority of social power in America, and that power overshadows the potential power available in every other institution (including government). The current president is appointing capitalists for his cabinet, meaning that economic power has more ability to exert itself in institutions such as education (I’m thinking of DeVos here). So working off my interpretation of your presentation of science, I would fully expect economics to overshadow that institution as well; your article detailing how companies and entrepreneurs have hijacked scientific discovery for profit (and often patenting, copyrighting, or otherwise claiming exclusive ownership over publicly-funded research results, defying both public interest and the free distribution of scientific information) fits perfectly with that expectation.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Shem’s next article: “Think math is useful? Wait until you find out that the Nazis used math to count up the dead Jews.”

    Another article from someone who can’t separate the method from what people do with the results.

  • I thought it would be obvious to anyone whose eyes connect to a functioning brain that I’m criticizing the way science just becomes part of corporate strategy in an economic system where human bodies have become commodities. If you think there’s anything conspiracist or crackpottish in that, feel free to explain.

  • tophilacticus

    The more I think about it, the happier I am I went back to pursue graduate degrees and conduct research. Scientific work is almost indecipherable today if taken in from news outlets. The headlines that went around recently serve as a good example; Numerous news outlets reported that Scott Kelly, after being in space for a year, had a 7% change in DNA from his identical twin, Mark Kelly, who had been on Earth. It was his gene expression (epigenetics) that changed, not his DNA.

    We have politicians basing decisions on information like this, through outlets like these , and we definitely have a voting base in the states that doesn’t know the difference or the importance (all the more reason why the determinism of Harris, Pinker, Peterson, and Murray needs to be challenged). This makes me wonder how much bogus info I get when I read news of other subjects. When there is some beneficial product or result, it largely goes to those that can afford it. As William Gibson said, “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

    It does not help that researchers, especially today, do not largely grasp any possible negative consequences of their work. The focus is on training young researchers to promote the benefits for grants and publications to get and stay employed. As you have said before, within the past several decades science has operated in this realm of entrenchment, attempting to separate themselves and scientific data, results, and conclusions from everything else. We have been trained to distinguish science from the rest of society, but what good that does if they keep handing over the fruits to the elite, who will never have enough power. Cue xkcd cartoon at the end of the comment.

    This is part of the reason why I believe science today needs to be much more transparent, scientific educators are essential, scientists need a good dose of philosophy and social sciences/anthropology, and science as whole needs some checks. I would hope that would be internal from those that have a firm grasp of the information. It doesn’t help if they can’t see beyond the walls that have been put around it.

    This is why this comic seems relevant: https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/images/5/56/robot_future.png

  • stphneye1971

    Tell somebody who worked at a patent office a hundred years ago that science was the pillar of collectivism prior to Reagan and Thatcher.

  • I certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that science was ever a democratic, egalitarian institution. What I meant was that during the 60s, Western governments were paying lip service and investing public funds into the health and well-being of the population with such measures as the Great Society and Britain’s National Health. By the time the 80s and 90s rolled around, welfare was a bad word and the assumption was that such paternalistic policies (and not, ahem, wars in the Falklands or the Far East, or the nuclear arms race or anything) were draining our national treasuries. The neoliberals learned really quickly that exploiting economic hardship was the perfect way to shift government spending from public matters and into the private sector.

    Was the “patent office” worker a reference to Einstein?

  • In the book, the Roses talk about how the scientific industries started to recognize in the 90s that public confidence in them was a lot lower than, say, during the Space Race. Decades of doing the bidding of corporations and the military had seriously tarnished the luster of science, and academics like feminists and philosophers had called into question its vaunted objectivity and the supposed blessings of technological progress.

    However, rather than strive for greater democratization and transparency, or appoint oversight committees to formalize and enforce ethical standards for science, the industries assumed that the public just needed to be educated more effectively about science. This ongoing PR push has done absolutely nothing to solve the problems in the way science operates in our society, or increase the public’s confidence level in science. All it’s done is made it seem like the authority of science is the only important matter here, and it shouldn’t be questioned.

  • stphneye1971

    Agree with the exploitative part. It’s ironic how Reagan, as Governor of California, wanted “the welfare bums back to work” in a state populated by workers who had built the Blackbird.

    There was a time when the US economy had benefited from WWII, the military-industrial complex employed lots of Americans and then, as consumers, they had access to science and technology through mass-production perfected during war. There was “no excuse” to that generation, even though they were feeding from the trough, themselves.

    So for me, your timeline attributes science inequality to at least one generation too late. Then there’s also the 70s oil crisis to consider how on Earth Thatcher and Reagan where able to be in.

    Scientific outputs (patents and research papers, for example) are inherently individualistic even in collectivist cultures such as the Japanese and the Scandinavian. Plenty of paywalls there. Not sure if or how the democratic and the egalitarian are exclusive to either collectivism or individualism. Athenians seemed to have been a collectivist bunch and they thought Socrates corrupted their youth.

  • tophilacticus

    That is why I think those pursuing a career in science or science communication (ok everyone) needs a more well-rounded education.

  • Chuck Johnson

    What do you think? Isn’t science too important to the future of society and human well-being to be used for profit?
    -Shem

    No, science is not too important to human well-being to be used for profit.
    Science, profit, income, investment, salaries, etc. are all too important to the future of society and human well-being for us to ignore their importance.

    Shem, you have that false-dichotomy thing going on here again.

  • Um, no, I think you’re the one peddling the false dichotomy here. I never said we should “ignore the importance” of science or economics in society. All I’m asking is to what extent the profit motive is helping or hindering scientific research. The OP to which you’re ostensibly responding describes the way taxpayers’ dollars end up in private coffers rather than used to benefit the common good.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “. . . the way taxpayers’ dollars end up in private coffers rather than used to benefit the common good.”

    That’s the false dichotomy that I refer to.
    “Private money” versus “the common good”.
    Money is not really the root of all evil.

    The morality or immorality of how people spend their money is far more complicated than your comments suggest.

  • Except it has little to do with “how people spend their money,” and a lot to do with how governments are compelled to allocate tax revenues more to schemes benefiting private interests than to programs that ameliorate the health and well-being of the community.

    If you’d bothered to read the OP, you’d realize that I’m saying something very, very different than, “Money is the root of all evil.”