US scientists are understandably concerned when government tries to censor free exchange of basic knowledge. But they should get their own house in order before complaining too loudly.
As the new business of biotechnology takes off, a number of microbiologists, and in some cases their institutions, are suppressing basic information gained at public expense to improve their own patent positions. This is as great a threat to free scientific inquiry as are the "voluntary" restraints sought by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US Department of Defense in the field of cryptology.
Because certain advances in basic mathematics make possible virtually unbreakable secret codes. NSA would like some kind of censorship of the reporting of relevant nonsecret research. Administrators of research universities and some mathematicians have expressed alarm at such prior restraint on scientific publication. But there has been much less concern when the same kind of censorship originates within the universities in microbiological fields where possibly lucrative patents are at stake.
As Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University, told Congress a few weeks ago, "We are already beginning to see serious threats against the usual modes of scientific communication." He went on to explain:
"There is the prospect of significant contamination of the university's basic research enterprise by the introduction of strong commercial motivations and potential conflicts of interests on the part of faculty members with respect to their obligations to the corporations in which they have consultancies or equity and their obligations to the university. . . . Evem more damage has been done to the informal roots of communication that characterize most vigorous fields of basic biological research."
In the past, the industrial payoff of basic university research lay in specific applications. Now it is basic knowledge that has commercial value. Withholding information at this level compromises the scientific process, to say nothing of cheating the general public which pays for such knowledge directly through the tax money used to fund the research. As noted in the journal Science, ". . . if people will not reveal how they do their experiments, no one else can repeat them, and an essential part of the scientific process is jeopardized."
Prospective financial gain from the new biotechnology gleams enticingly on today's industrial horizon. It is understandable that scientists and even universities should feel tempted. But larger values are at stake. If they want to keep basic knowledge in this field to themselves, then let the scientists pay for the research out of their own pockets or find suitable industrial partners. But as long as the public pays for free and open research it should remain free and open.