Science, ethics, funds: hard decisions

"We just don't always know where the real breakthrough is coming from." Relaxing in the restrained elegance of his office in Massachusetts Hall, Derek Bok, president of Harvard, was not talking about crime. He was articulating one of the basic premises of scientific research: that great discoveries cannot be planned.

Down the Charles River at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Prof. John P. Longwell agrees. Staring into the face of deep cuts in federal funding, he talks about the "increasingly severe problem" of finding money for scientific research -- and about the subtle pressure to move into "Thomas Edison inventor-type work" in hopes of discovering devices that will sell.

In different ways, both men are wrestling with a problem as old as university education itself: how to balance the apparently conflicting demands between town and gown. On one hand are the desires of a society hungry for the practical inventions of new technology. On the other are the needs of academic researchers whose investigations sometimes --but only sometimes -- lead to such inventions. Both men are talking -- though they don't use the now-discredited word from the educational reforms of the 1960s -- about the "relevance" of the university to the public.

The Boston area is no stranger to this problem. The region brings an impressive array of academic institutions together with a strong concentration of high-technology companies. Recently, however, two factors have brought the problem into sharper focus: the shrinking of support for research grants and fellowships under the Reagan administration, and the tremendous amounts of money to be made by researchers who form companies to market their discoveries.

Can the latter replace the former? Can a university professor, whose discoveries in recombinant DNA and genesplicing may be worth millions, funnel profits into academic coffers? Is this yet one more way in which private initiative can supplant public funds?

On the face of it, the issue seems one of finance -- an issue which needs to be seen in perspective. For years the United States has been king of the scientific mountain. Pure research has flourished. Two world wars stimulated great strides in adapting theoretical knowledge into useful devices. More recently, Sputnik and the fear of playing second fiddle to Soviet science spurred moon landings and, eventually, the flight of the Columbia. Along the way came improvements in telecommunications and travel that show up in push-button phones and supersonic passenger flights.

But science, which consists in discovering the predictibility of what before seemed random, breeds predictors. And the more astute among them have foreseen for some time that American science is riding too heavily on its reputation and is approaching a slippery slope. The heyday of research support is over. Industry now spends a smaller percentage of its income on basic research than it did in the 1960s. The cost of its equipment has grown much faster than the cost of living, although government funds available for equipment purchase have dropped more than 80 percent since 1967. So, like the aging industrial plant in many of our older cities, the aging equipment in our laboratories makes American science less and less competitive. Upgrading it to international state-of-the-art standards would take, according to one estimate, over $300 million for university laboratories alone.

The trouble with this decline in research capability, Derek Bok says candidly , is that "the results don't show up for a while. We're still winning a majority of Nobel Prizes, and that produces a happy glow of satisfaction."

These are the kinds of issues that Bok raises in his well-argued and eminently readable President's Report issued last month. He devotes this year's report to the state of academic science -- not only its funding, but also its freedom, its standards, and its morale. Behind his report lies a particular experience: the possibility, which arose last summer, that the university might form a joint-venture biogenetic company with one of its faculty members, biochemist Mark Ptashne.

Initially, the plan seemed a ready-made answer to the cries of pinched deans. Harvard already invests its $1.5 billion endowment in various moneymaking companies -- including, until recent protests made them withdraw, some unpopular ones doing business in South Africa. So why not invest in a start-up business with one of its own faculty members -- a business whose shares, to judge by recent experience, would immediately be bid up to dizzy heights by eager investors. The faculty member would contribute his own patented ideas. The university would provide part of the capital --

But discussion, as often happens in scientific research, revealed complexities. "As we thought more about the matter," Derek Bok wrote in his report, "we slowly came to realize that the path to success would be marked by every kind of snare and pitfall." Some of the more obvious:

* The university, lending its prestige, would be endorsing the quality of the product. If it decided to pull out -- or, as in its South African investments, if it left under pressure -- it would leave behind a trail of aggrieved investors.

* The relationship between the university and its professors would be confused. Salary and promotion rewards could be influenced by the relative success of their companies, rather than simply by the individual's academic performance under long-established and widely accepted canons.

* The university, not necessary skillful in business, might get in over its head. Joint venture companies, after all, are speculative. Many fail.

But more than finance is at stake. The issue also turns on several points of ethics. In the first place, such a venture would shift the nature of the academy. Our universities are still largely shaped by the conceptions of the intellectual world held by their faculties. But financial pressures have already moved them uncomfortably close to overt bidding wars over promising researchers. Departments of philosophy, applied mathematics, and ancient languages, having low earnings potential, already take short shrift. Were joint ventures in the offing, little would prevent the administration from backing English professors to write best-sellers, law professors to go into lucrative practice, or artists to venture into commercial design.

The second point is even more fundamental. Part of the marketability of ideas depends on their secrecy. The essence of academic research, however -- the feature that most distinguishes it from its industrial counterpart -- is its openness. Results, once confirmed, are generally published. Without that openness, writes Bok, universities will face "an erosion of trust and a corresponding decline in academic standards."

Harvard, then, has taken a courageous step. It has turned away from business ventures with its faculty. Quod erat demonstrandum?m

Not quite. Two problems remain, both with worrisome implications. First, companies are already forming around professors, without any help from the university. Professor Ptashne is now involved in the Genetics Institute, a privately held firm which has just leased space from the Harvard Medical School at Mission Hill.His colleague, Nobel Prize-winning Prof. Walter Gilbert, is a part owner and a founder of Biogen SA, a multinational corporation shortly to open a branch in Cambridge.

Most universities limit the amount of time a faculty member can spend on outside consulting to about one day a week. Such consultation should not be discouraged. Professors active in such work have often been found to exceed their peers in research, publication, and popularity with students. But the dimensions of the situation may have changed. Will increasing numbers of millionaire-professors skew the climate in liberal-arts curricula away from a disinterested pursuit of knowledge? Will promising graduate students -- like some collegiate athletes -- become objects of clandestine financial deals?

Second, Harvard is not the world. But the world is full of universities whose financial problems are acute. They are not in the goldfish bowl of Harvard Yard, where the world's press watches every move with catlike intensity. Nor, unfortunately, do they always exhibit the kind of moral leadership with which Boston's better schools are graced. To many, the temptations to confuse business with academic pursuits may prove insurmountable.

What is the answer? If joint ventures won't work, can the already-established corporations be expected to fund today's university research costs? MIT's Professor Longwell, who sits atop an $8 million grant from Exxon in the field of combustion science, doesn't think corporate money can fill the void left by federal cuts. Nor does he think it should -- although he says the Exxon grant, hard though it was to get, is "a great way to do things." In any case, such corporate support will gravitate only toward commercially useful products --five Harvard professors working under a $24 million grant from Monsanto. Left aside will be a range of sciences, from archaeology to zoology, whose values are less commercial.

Two final points. First, this may be one of those places where private sector support simply cannot take the place of public funds. The National Science Foundation, which attaches few strings to its grants, may be serving a purpose no other body can fill.

Second, President Reagan needs to find, and listen to, a first-class science adviser. So far the post remains vacant --having been turned down by several eminent scientists who found the revised job description far too limiting.

Otherwise (such is the nature of discovery) we will never know what we are missi ng -- until our competitors find it first.

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