Dark elements of US gold rush

November 3, 2000

US science is breaking new ground and reaping huge profits. But there is bad news with the good, says John Stackhouse.

Harvey Cohen does not have to look far to see science's new golden age. From outside his office at Stanford University, the faculty parking lots are filled with luxury cars and sports utility vehicles, and every new building is named for a titan of the information age.

Cohen's pet project, a biomedical engineering centre now under construction, is being built with a single donation - $150 million from Netscape founder James Clark, who once taught at Stanford. The operating costs will come from a $60 million pledge from an anonymous donor. If that is not enough, Cohen is negotiating a donation of several hundred million dollars from two foundations to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, where his paediatrics team is a world leader in leukaemia treatment.

The United States accounts for more than 40 per cent of the world's science spending, produces a third of the globe's high-tech products and almost half of all major new drugs. "I would say 60 per cent of the world's good science occurs in the US," says Richard Taylor, a Canadian-born Nobel prizewinning physicist at Stanford. He is one of 85 US-based scientists to have won a Nobel since 1981 - 15 of them at Stanford. Germany and Switzerland run a distant second, with 10 each.

At Stanford, the most common explanation for this dominance is money. Last year, the US spent more on research and development - $229 billion in total - than Germany, Japan, France, Britain, Canada, Italy and Russia combined.

Buoyed by a booming economy and record budget surpluses, the Clinton administration has raised health-research spending to double the research budget of the US space programme. Philanthropists, enriched by a decade of rising stock prices, are also pumping money into scientific research.

Capitalism and science have never been far apart in a nation moulded by innovators such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Through the first 150 years of the US, most scientific achievement was entirely utilitarian and highly marketable, like the cotton gin, sewing machine and vulcanised rubber.

Individuals, private companies, philanthropic foundations and societies continued to dominate US research until the second world war. The building of an atomic bomb was to epitomise a new belief that government should actively engage itself in science.

During the cold war, Taylor's field of high-energy physics was showered with federal money to ensure that the US would never again be humiliated by Moscow, which got to outer space first with Sputnik I in 1957. "A year after Sputnik went up, you could go to Washington with a wheelbarrow and they'd fill it with money," Taylor says.

By the 1970s, a different model of competitive science began to emerge. Multinational companies, suburban garage start-ups, university labs and government research centres all chased staggering new discoveries such as microchips and DNA.

A decade later, a boom in venture capital financed a new generation of scientist-entrepreneurs, people such as Netscape's Clark, who left an electrical engineering teaching position at Stanford in 1982.

Few places exude an American enthusiasm for discovery more than Stanford, where science and enterprise are cheered as partners. This is where DNA was cloned and, more recently, "optical tweezers" were developed. This device allows scientists to assemble molecules, creating structures, and possibly life, from the most basic unit known to science.

Ever since two young graduates, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, set up their electronics company in a Palo Alto garage in 1939, the university has spawned much of the industry of Silicon Valley, with the creation of Sun Microsystems, which gets its name from Stanford University Network, Cisco Systems, Netscape and Yahoo.

Lucy Shapiro, a Stanford microbiologist, says "everyone in our lab is an entrepreneur". She recently launched a small company to develop a new antibiotic that she believes could be a successor to penicillin. She stresses that her lab has never pursued an idea to make money - it is just that the private sector knows how to put academic ideas to work. With a system of patents and property laws, it also protects her findings.

Shapiro has spent her career trying to understand how one cell, a fertilised egg, divides and develops into a baby, and why some cells join to form a kidney while others mass together to make eyes. If she can crack the communications code at the cell level, she believes that she will have taken an enormous step toward understanding cancer and other serious medical problems that arise when the cycle of dividing cells goes wrong.

Even though her work is federally funded, she can license her discoveries, thanks to the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which has been as crucial to the current science boom as Sputnik was to the 1960s space race. The act allowed universities to set up patent and licensing offices and become as wealthy as many big corporations. From one DNA cloning discovery, Stanford has earned more than $230 million.

At Stanford, scientists, who may also be millionaires, insist that one of the most fundamental principles of science still stands: that discoveries must be published as soon as they are proved so that all researchers can benefit.

But emerging evidence shows that the global public is being less served by this US-dominated science. At the start of the 21st century, there are powerful drugs to fight Aids but not malaria, there is evidence that cancer will soon be in retreat but not tuberculosis, and there are cars that are smarter than a 1950s computer but still rely on fossil fuels.

There are also indications that US supremacy may not go unchallenged. In 1992, the number of US students starting physics graduate programmes is down per cent, largely because it does not have the cachet, or rewards, of biotech and computer software.

With the proliferation of patents, licences and ensuing profits, it remains unclear how much of science's public domain is really public, or whether the priorities of research are not just the priorities of business.

"Someone asked me, 'Isn't this a slippery slope?'" Cohen says of the new market forces in science. "I said, 'Yeah, but it's the only slope we're on'."

This article is excerpted with permission from the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail .

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