Editorial: Research should focus on utility, not profits

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

Scientists and stock holders don’t seem like a natural pair, yet universities often bring the two together.

Pitt has taken advantage of private money in the past through partnerships with corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi Pasteur, a pharmaceutical company. Now, Pitt is collaborating with the pharmaceutical company, Shire Plc, on research to develop drugs for rare diseases.

Yet, while private, commercial partners may be necessary for university research, it can disrupt the role schools like Pitt play in the academic community. Mainly, these partnerships can hinder a university’s ability to foster objective, scientific progress for all who may benefit from it.

Of course, many products that are available to the public — like medicine — would not be available if it were not for partnerships between universities and private companies. As Pitt’s Department of Human Genetics Chair Dietrich Stephan told The Pitt News, “The only way to get these basic scientific innovations into the marketplace is through a commercial partner, or through commercialization.”

This begs the question, however, should we cater to the marketplace when we conduct our research, or to the public good?

Jackie Smith of the sociology department and Michael Goodhart of the department of political science wrote in an open letter for The University Times in April, arguing that, “The open and free exchange of research and data is essential to advancing scientific knowledge, and commodification threatens this fundamental principle of scientific inquiry.”

Contrary to this goal, corporations are inherently self-motivated — they tend to be concerned with what gets their stockholders the best profit margins, not necessarily with what generates the best circumstances for the most people.

“[Pharmaceutical companies] contribute to the commodification and privatization of health care and access, making essential medicines less and less accessible to those who need them,” Smith told The Pitt News.

As a University, our primary goal should, ideally, be to generate scientific progress — whether that be in medicine, technology, physics, or any other field. Our research should not be used to generate profits but to advance the field, and we can’t make advances in the field, or in public health, if the ends of our research are restricted to one company or a small clientele.

Nonetheless, it’s not exactly realistic to say that Pitt should never partner with private corporations on research. With state funding for colleges becoming harder and harder to obtain, we are dependent on private sources to make advances in certain fields.

For universities, conducting scientific research isn’t exactly cheap.

Schools have to pay for the faculty, lab maintenance, materials and, of course, the proper equipment — which can equate a price tag of up to $1 million or more, according to numbers from the science and technology blog, io9. And that’s not including indirect costs, like electricity and office staff.

Typically, the federal government takes care of many of the costs through research grants, which branches — like the National Institutes of Health — divvy out to schools. However, each of the 50,000 grants that the NIH gives out are extremely competitive — which is especially true nowadays, seeing that the Republican-controlled Congress places every government branch’s spending habits under intense scrutiny.

This makes universities, at times, dependent on private money. But this dependence does not mean we need to back down from our values.

Pitt can ensure that its commercial research partnerships uphold these values by making certain ethical stipulations with its partners. First, and perhaps most obvious, the research must live up to objective scientific standards, avoiding influence from the marketplace. We cannot, for instance, allow the companies who utilize our research to use the findings in ways to mislead the public.

Second, we must ensure that the ends of our research are available to all who need them. For instance, the drugs we help Shire Plc create should be available to all health care plans, not priced in a way that excludes disadvantaged people from using them.

While the money doesn’t hurt, our university is not merely an arm of a company’s R&D department — Pitt should make this explicit to its commercial partners.

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