Follow the money
Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards, and Delusions of Campus Capitalism by Daniel S. Greenberg. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007, 324 pp.
Melissa S. Anderson
On the one hand, it appears that the sky is falling yet again. Science is caught up in a competitive arms race for funding, universities are driven by internal and external forces to enter into questionable relationships with the for-profit sector, scientists’ integrity buckles under pressure and, in short, as Daniel S. Greenberg puts it, “much is amiss in the house of science.” On the other hand, despite this general mayhem, scientists as a group demonstrate altruism, work with the best intentions toward scientific progress, and maintain a collective sense of ethical responsibility. Such is the two-handed perspective that dominates Greenberg’s Science for Sale.
The book’s strength lies in Greenberg’s skill as an interviewer of scientists and interpreter of complex developments. The first seven chapters of the book address a range of troublesome issues in science, including financial strain, federal and corporate funding, varieties of academy/industry relations, consequences of the Bayh-Dole Act, academic capitalism and entrepreneurship, breaches of human-subjects and conflict-of-interest regulations, and the regulatory environment. Greenberg covers these through detailed stories and analyses drawn from over 200 interviews with researchers, administrators, regulators, and others, as well as press reports and relevant literature. The strongest of these chapters is a lively review of interactions among federal regulators, institutions, and academic associations concerning human-subjects protection during the past 10 years. Here is Greenberg at his best, revealing the drama and personalities behind federal shutdowns of research programs that violated human- subjects regulations.
Each of the next six chapters is based primarily on Greenberg’s interviews with a single informant. Here we meet Robert Holton, known for his involvement in the development of the drug Taxol, who expresses his disgust with university/industry collaboration, and William Wold, who does his best to explain the financial arrangements that support his work as a professor at Saint Louis University and his role as president of the biotechnology company VirRx. Lisa Bero from the University of California, San Francisco, talks about deliberations and decisions in conflict- of-interest committees; and Drummond Rennie, who has held editorial positions at the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, expresses frustration at the limited capacity of journals to catch and correct fraudulent research. Greenberg‘s interview with Timothy Mulcahy, who was then at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, concerns technology transfer but actually reveals more about how universities protect their students and postdoctoral fellows in the context of university/industry relationships.
It comes as no surprise that Greenberg, a longtime science journalist, takes a balanced, skeptical stance toward the issues he covers. He gives detailed accounts of things gone wrong but never loses sight of a certain nobleness of character underlying science generally. He documents major cases of malfeasance in academy/industry relationships but also argues that “a lot of steam has gone out of the belief that the linkage of universities and business is fundamentally unholy.“ He balances the need for stronger regulation against the justifiable resistance of scientific associations to inept or excessive regulatory control. He contrasts universities’ enthusiastic expectation of financial windfalls from entrepreneurship with the realities of unlikely jackpots. Universities and the National Institutes of Health have great wealth, but it is never enough to satisfy the demands of scientific potential, leading Greenberg to question the willingness of researchers and research institutions to make tough decisions about financial priorities. Scientists acknowledge a need to be attentive and responsive to public demands for accountability but repeatedly stumble on the gap between rhetoric and reality.
The interview transcripts show Greenberg’s skepticism in action, as he plays both devil’s and angel’s advocate, countering both optimism and pessimism. Such evenhandedness makes this volume a useful counterweight to those who think they have U.S. science figured out. Readers will come away with a realistic sense of the calamity-prone, headache-inducing complexity of the research enterprise. Not all of the issues Greenberg addresses are new; some have been covered in other volumes, and many will be familiar to those who have been reasonably attentive to the scientific press. Not all of the topics fall under the rubric of “science for sale”; some have to do with the organization of scientific work (the federal grant system, peer review, the postdoctoral system) or with broad issues of research integrity, quite apart from involvement with the for-profit sector or marketlike behavior on the part of academic institutions.
Greenberg is less interested in proposing courses of action than in reviewing the effectiveness of current “correctives” of scientific behavior. Institutional policies and regulations, journals’ editorial diligence, academic associations’ influence, oversight by federal agencies such as the Office of Research Integrity and the Office of Human Research Protections, and attention by the press and Congress all play important roles in ensuring the integrity of science; roles that Greenberg argues are imperfectly executed. Academic commercialism raises the stakes: “The sins arising from scientific commercialism pose a far more challenging problem: keeping science honest while potent forces push it hard to make money.“
There will always be some whose behavior is determinedly or heedlessly deviant, with or without commercial involvement. There will always be many who conduct their research according to the highest ethical standards. There will always be a middle group who occasionally yield to temptation or misbehave in ways that escape attention. The question is whether the temptations that commercial forces present to the middle group are offset by counterpressures. Skeptical of the adequacy of institutional correctives, Greenberg nonetheless concludes that “for protecting the integrity of science and reaping its benefits for society, wholesome developments now outweigh egregious failings—though not by a wide margin.“
To bolster these wholesome developments, Greenberg repeatedly endorses an oddly old-fashioned idea: the power of shame as a behavioral corrective in science. In one paragraph of the final chapter, he invokes the terms shame, embarrassment, pride, reputations, exposure, harmful publicity, prestige, humiliation, norms, judgments of colleagues and the public, vulnerability, and ethical sensitivity. The shame weapon, as he calls it, has the capacity to keep scientists and their institutions honest because of the public’s expectations for ethical conduct in research, the critical importance of reputation to a successful career, and the severe consequences of having one’s wrongdoing exposed. Greenberg argues, “The scientific profession exalts reputation. Among scientists and journal editors, the risks of being classed as a rogue would have a wondrously beneficial effect on attention to the rules.“ He notes that shaming and public humiliation at universities where research projects were shut down by federal agencies seemed to yield “salutary effects.“
It is perhaps not surprising that Greenberg, recognizing the temptations and pressures facing what he sees as a basically righteous population, proposes a journalist’s sharpest weapon, exposure, as a promising solution. What is old-fashioned about the idea is its connection to professional self-regulation. During the past 20 years, self-regulation has proved an inadequate counterweight against the surge of federal and institutional regulations, rules, oversight, accountability, formal assurances, and training mandates. Greenberg does not, of course, recommend abandoning all of these in favor of exposure and humiliation, but he does seem to argue that shame could pick up much of the slack from these other mechanisms. This argument may not hold up. First, the very importance of a scientist’s reputation, which is critical to shame’s effectiveness, makes potential whistleblowers reluctant to come forward, lest they erroneously inflict damage merely by accusation. Second, both academic and government research institutions depend on the public’s high regard for continued funding, a fact that heightens their susceptibility to shame but also substantially increases their incentive to hide emergent embarrassments. Third, recent research published in Science suggests that a finding of misconduct does not necessarily derail a career in science.
Shame may also be limited as a deterrent by the considerable control that individuals and institutions have over the terms of disclosure of their own activities. Rationalization is not necessarily a weak defense when one’s public questioners have little understanding of the details of scientific research or funding. Institutions can and do defend questionable actions as justifiable or even prudent in the context of changing and challenging environments. Both academic and public attitudes adjust when universities convincingly interpret their arrangements with industry as normative in the current academic economy.
Greenberg brackets his analysis with consideration of universities’ obsession with growth, competitiveness, and prestige. These focal points are relentless pressures that shape the context of many of the problems he addresses in the rest of the book. As he points out, “Risk and disappointment are built into the financial system of science, feeding a mood of adversity among university administrators, research managers, scientists, and graduate students.“ Such systemic fault lines should not be ignored; they give rise to competitive pressures and a sense of injustice that my colleagues and I have found to be strongly linked to scientific misconduct. I challenge Greenberg to turn his estimable analytic skill and spot-on questions toward an investigation of these perverse and fundamental problems in the organization and funding of science.
Melissa S. Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of higher education and director of the Postsecondary Education Research Institute at the University of Minnesota.