Who'll pay to play God?

August 6, 1999

Anthropologist Paul Rabinow spent much of 1994 observing French genetic scientists in their doomed attempt to strike a deal with a US biotech laboratory. Stalling points included ownership, exclusivity and infernal retribution.

It is Paris, early 1994: months of negotiations over a collaboration between American start-up biotechnology company Millennium Pharmaceuticals and France's premier genomics laboratory, the Centre D'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain, are about to collapse in what will alternately be characterised as a quarrel, a battle and a scandal.

Scientists from CEPH had been tracing genes linking diabetes and obesity using genetic samples from French diabetics. In an effort to advance their research further, CEPHrepresentatives, with the blessing of the French government, spent much of 1993 embroiled in discussions with Millennium over possible joint projects.

But when a team from Millennium visited CEPH in February 1994 to finalise details, discussions collapsed, causing the French government to block any deal.

The problem, explained a government spokesman, was that CEPH was on the verge of handing the Americans that most precious of things, genetic material from the diabetic families: French DNA.

The French were faced with a crisis. On the one hand, CEPH saw a need to transform, with the help of the Americans, its operation in the face of international competition. On the other side were concerns, widely aired in the French cultural/political milieu, over the legitimate range of genetic experimentation. The situation was exacerbated by personal confrontations among the various scientists.

I spent six months in Paris observing the players as the drama unfolded. I listened to arguments and watched the genetic research progress. Below I describe a crucial meeting in the disintegrating negotiations, in which were raised questions about the potentially huge profits to be made if the research ultimately led to a drug to treat diabetes. Then there was the matter of how the French families who contributed the original genetic samples would benefit from linking up with an American company. Worries were also expressed over whether CEPH, a state-funded academic laboratory, should tie itself into an exclusive commercial deal with a private firm or whether it had a duty to academic freedom - to keep its research open to all comers.

I discovered, unforseeably, that current French attitudes are linked to religion and that the French cultural milieu in which cutting-edge science operates is distinguished by a profound uneasiness about the consequences of recent scientific discoveries.

Take the way purgatorial themes abound in the moral discourse in France about genetic engineering. Michel Vovelle, in his Les mes au purgatoire, reports that in 1994, just over 700 years after its promulgation, 35 per cent of French people and 71 per cent of practising Catholics believed in purgatory. The same survey reported that 39 per cent of the French believed in extraterrestrials, 71 per cent in mental telepathy and 37 per cent that the dead communicate with the living.

Scientists in France, discussing where genetic discoveries may lead, often use language that reflects a sense of being in purgatory, in limbo. There is a chronic feeling that the future is at stake; a leitmotif turning on redeeming past moral errors and avoiding future ones; a heightened sense of tension between this-worldly activities and (somehow) transcendent stakes and values.

These echoes of religion are all the more surprising because they are expressed by people who are forthrightly secular.

In the background to the specific argument over French DNA loomed another problem: how best to bring money, morality and scientific knowledge into a productive and ethical relationship? Today, the troubled relations of ethics and ethos within capitalist cultures become especially prickly when those authorised to give us scientific truths, truths that will change the course of our lives, require vast sums of money to practise their sciences.

There is a long history of institutions, from medieval monasteries to modern universities, that strive to seek out truth by remaining untainted by other interests. Opening up universities to demands that they both raise money for and make money from their research has presented such institutions with a significant new dilemma.

Paul Rabinow is professor of anthropology, University of California at Berkeley.

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