Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Greenberg, Science for Sale: A Belated Book Review

Daniel S. Greenberg, Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Somehow this book escaped my attention when it was first published and I noticed it only lately. Of the books I relied on when I was researching HOOKED, its closest analog is Sheldon Krimsky's Science in the Private Interest.

Greenberg, an experienced journalist covering science and policy matters, begins by offering us two "grand narratives" to chew over:
  1. Since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 opened up academic research to patents, licenses, and royalties, we have arrived in a promised land of win-win. The campus benefits from income from its scientific discoveries, and the new entrepreneurial spirit that now pervades campus science assures that a steady stream of new discoveries will improve the lives of all.
  2. Bayh-Dole began a race to the bottom in which commercial behavior and values have steadily eaten away at the fabric of scientific integrity. We no longer have science for the sake of truth and the public good; we have science for the sake of the dollar, leading to widespread fraud and the manipulation of data for marketing purposes.
Greenberg then apparently decides that he can keep the reader most interested by maintaining the tension between these two accounts and not showing his hand too early as to which account he believes. This might have worked, but unfortunately, Greenberg, for all of his journalistic credentials, is in my humble opinion not that great a writer. I found most of his chapters hard to follow; ideas followed each other without much of a sense of the logic of the progression. His tacking back and forth between the two grand narratives thus led to more confusion than enlightenment.

Having presented to us his (two-sided) review of the broad scene of academic science today, Greenberg then focuses on interviews with individuals in different places within the academic science establishment, devoting a chapter to each interview. These I found generally to be tedious because Greenberg seems to feel the need to include every word with hardly any editing. The exception was an excellent interview with Drummond Rennie, which I found compelling mainly because Rennie has been such an important figure in the debate over pharmaceuticals and medical journals.

In the end, when Greenberg finally has to come clean on what he thinks, he adopts a position not much different from what I have been advocating in this blog. On the one hand he resists the Chicken Little view that science's sky is falling. Most scientists still do very good, honest science. Most universities have not auctioned off their departments to commercial companies. Commercial sponsorship still accounts for a very small percentage of on-campus research. Bahy-Dole is not going away and we might as well figure out how to live with it.

On the other hand, Greenberg finds credible most of the concerns raised by the negative impact of commercialization on the world of science, and agrees that steps must be taken to ward off the dangers. He is reasonably skeptical when the foxes try to write the new ethical code for the henhouse. He is alert to the dangers that patents have become a barrier rather than a facilitator to future discovery.

One theme that I addressed very briefly in HOOKED, that Greenberg picks up on, is the power shame. Suppose that we were to tell a university scientist, "We can tell you your future with confidence, if you continue your present behavior of pursuing lucrative research grants, consulting contracts, and speakers' fees with commercial industry. We can guarantee that your scientific work will continue to go well in the lab, and also that you'll increasingly live a life of material pleasure and plenty. There will be only one penalty that you'll have to pay. Whenever you encounter one of your fellow scientists, you'll feel as if you wish you had a paper bag over your head." Greenberg argues that a substantial number, perhaps the vast majority, of scientists would foreswear commercial relationships if they could be told this and believe it. Being ashamed in the face of your fellow scientists is, he asserts, a very powerful force for maintaining scientific integrity, one that ought perhaps to be exploited more by those seeking reform.

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