Harvard's decision not to go into the DNA business does not necessarily close the door to future university participation in ventures involving genetic engineering. But it does judiciously mandate caution in this whole unexplored field. The public can feel reassured that a pursuit of commercial profit will not be allowed to destroy academic freedom and quality at this prestigious institution.
Faculty raised many questions about the proposal for Harvard to become a minority stockholder in a new company working with gene splicing to develop drugs and industrial products. It was felt business considerations might lead to secrecy in research and inhibit flow of information, deflect scholars away from academic duties, and attract students mainly into areas with lucrative potential. As Harvard president Derek Bok commented:
"The preservation of academic values is a matter of paramount importance to the university and owning shares in such a company would create a number of potential conflicts with these values."
Such a high-minded stand is, of course, easy for a wealthy institution. What is not so easy is how private universities in financial trouble will be able to cope. With declining enrollments and rising costs, the lure of making money from DNA research is obvious. This is why other major universities -- Stanford, Yale, MIT, the University of California, which also hold potentially lucrative biological patents -- have been watching the Harvard controversy with such interest.
Hard-and-fast conclusions at this stage are premature. With the nation only on the verge of a significant new phase of industrial development, the implications for various institutions have yet to be understood. This question needs thoughtful discussion as does the whole problem of university funding. While the scholarly community -- and the public -- go on studying these issues, however, Harvard deserves credit for setting a standard of prudence and academic integrity.