Gag on lab talk among friends

February 25, 2000

The THES reports from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Washington.

An era of greater secrecy among bioscientists is beginning as more turn to corporate cash to fund and exploit their research.

The finding has emerged in a Harvard Medical School study that has fuelled debate on a problem for scientists: how to manage the conflicts of interest that arise when the profit motive is brought into the laboratory.

Many scientists believe that striking partnerships with corporations and getting involved in spin-off companies undermines traditions of academic freedom and sharing of research.

Research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington last Saturday suggested some substance behind their fears.

Eric Campbell, a health policy expert at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said the study appeared to debunk one myth associated with industrial sponsorship: that it lowers productivity.

However, it revealed that greater secrecy and reduced cooperation were the price bioscience was paying for its new paymasters.

The study focused on the biological sciences, a boom area for science and commercial exploitation. The Harvard experts were reluctant to generalise their findings to other disciplines. More than 300 science-based businesses and 3,000 life scientists in the 50 most research-

intensive universities in the US were quizzed.

The extent to which industry looked to academe for bioscience expertise is enormous. University consultants were sought by 89 per cent of the firms, and 58 per cent of companies sponsored research. Meanwhile 28 per cent of faculty members reported having some form of research relationship with industry.

Certainly, it appears a very fruitful partnership. The survey revealed that those scientists who are working with industry were far more productive than their "purist" colleagues.

Business-linked academics published 50 per cent more papers in peer-reviewed journals than colleagues while doing the same number of teaching hours and contributing marginally more to other university activities.

"We cannot say there is a cause-and-effect relationship here," Dr Campbell said. "It may be that industry funding provides faculty with more resources to do research or it might be that industry simply seeks out the most productive faculty members. My personal view is it's most likely to be the latter."

Those who received about two-thirds of their funding from industry were shown to be most productive, while university scientists who got close on all their money from corporate coffers published and taught far less.

The most disturbing aspect was the effect of industrial involvement on secrecy. In the survey, 82 per cent of firms said they required academic researchers to withhold publication of information until a patent has been applied for in order to protect their investment.

However, 56 per cent said that sometimes research they had sponsored was kept secret for more time than was necessary to file the patent for commercial reasons.

Some per cent of the industry-linked academics reported they had delayed publication for more than six months, and 11 per cent said they had denied another academic's request for information or biomaterials.

The figures for less industry-linked academics were 16 per cent and 6 per cent respectively. In addition, 35 per cent of industry-linked bioscientists said they had let the prospect of commercialisation influence the direction of their research.

"Academe-industry relationships and commercialisation are associated with increased secrecy and with a change in the direction of academic researchers," Dr Campbell said.

Those intimately involved with forging stronger links between academe and industry played down the problem.

Peter Lee, managing counsel for intellectual property for Schlumberger Oilfield Services, said there were many conflicts of interest, not least those surrounding scientists entering into contracts with commercial organisations and the patenting of research. He believes the principal task is to devise ways to manage these conflicts.

"There are projects where the company will want secrecy for a period of time, but usually that is for data, not the publication of a thesis or ideas," he said.

Thomas Tombrello, a senior scientist and technology assessment officer at the California Institute of Technology, urged keeping a perspective. "The astronomers in my division are far more secretive than any of those involved in commercialisation," he said.

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