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.
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 BioinformaticsDuring 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.
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?