THE BLOG
03/05/2013 11:28 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

Corporate Science Obstructs Science for the People

Recently, in response to an online petition with over 65,000 signatures, the White House announced that it intends to make some federally funded research findings published in pricey scientific journals available to the public free of charge one year after initial publication. "The logic behind enhanced public access is plain," said White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren in the official response on the White House petition page. "We know that scientific research supported by the federal government spurs scientific breakthroughs and economic advances when research results are made available to innovators. Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth."

While this decision should effectively end the withholding of some taxpayer funded research behind expensive, restrictive pay walls, it's only one step in supporting a movement toward "science for the people" not just the commercial interests.

Breakthroughs and advances in science and technology over the past 60 years have been heavily skewed toward the corporate and military sectors. Consider the major advances in the food and beverage processing industry -- instead of providing healthier, more nutritious products, foods are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, salt and additives. (Check out the Center for Science in the Public Interest's work). Despite major advances in medical technology and pharmaceuticals, in hospitals alone there are 200,000 preventable deaths a year attributable to medical malpractice and hospital-induced infections. And research to develop lifesaving vaccines has been anemic, as has been research on preventing or curing malaria and tuberculosis -- until recently. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. military budget has reached half of the entire federal discretionary budget. Many of the nation's leading scientists and engineers are working to create deadlier missiles, submarines and more lethal drones. How could those talents and budgets be used to serve the betterment of the people?

Corporate science puts profit before the public interest. Corporate science is often secretive, not peer-reviewed, laden with lobbying power, and driven by profit-seeking strategies. Take for instance, in the 1960s GM employed 21,000 scientists and engineers. Despite all that combined brain and manpower, they were not doing any research on crashworthiness and were behind the curve on tire and brake improvements and general handling and safety when compared to their European competitors. Patents for airbags were first issued as early as the 1950s, yet they didn't become widely available in vehicles until the 1980s. It was only when the government stepped in to require safety features in 1967 that GM saw fit to assign some of their army of scientists and engineers to these tasks. The general public was denied the potential lifesaving efforts of many of these researchers by their myopic bosses.

The counter to corporate, profit-driven science is academic science. Academic science and research is conducted in an open university setting, it is subject to peer review and is not for profit. But corporate science has become increasingly aggressive in recent decades in exerting its power over academia. Corporations are lining up at prestigious universities like MIT, Harvard, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. They are pushing to gain the rights to these universities' valuable taxpayer-funded research, to entice their student scientists and engineers with lucrative paychecks and direct them toward careers in often trivial or redundant commercial product development, and to hire university faculty as expert witnesses before regulatory bodies.

The latter point leads to further exertion of power by corporations over regulators. For instance, Monsanto and its allies have prevented the federal government's efforts to merely label genetically modified food, despite an outpour of public sentiment for disclosure. Such is how commercial interests pervert the call for open science and the consumer right to know in favor of bigger profits. Similarly, two major milk trade groups recently petitioned the FDA to allow them to not clearly label milk products that have been artificially sweetened. Low calorie labels are not attractive to children, is their primary claim.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows universities to patent federally funded research and then license those patents to private industry -- essentially giving for-profit companies the fruit of taxpayer funded innovation to use as they see fit.

Twenty years earlier, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about such a marriage between government-funded R&D and industry, with universities serving as cupid. He said: "The free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity... The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded. Yet, in holding scientific search and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

"Science for the people" is about asking the right questions, as if people matter. In 2011, The Washington Post published a feature on Alexa Dantzler, a 15 year old high school student from Alexandria, Virginia, who wanted to know how much toxic chemical residue remained in clothing after it had been dry-cleaned. Georgetown University professor Paul Roepe allowed Alexa to use his lab to conduct the study. He said: "Nobody, I mean nobody, has previously done this simple thing -- gone out there to several different dry cleaners and tested different types of cloth." Alexa's findings were that certain chemicals linked with cancer can linger in some fabrics, such as wool, long after dry-cleaning. Her work was later published in a peer-reviewed environmental journal (link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/etc.665/abstract) and she is a candidate for a number of prestigious science awards as a result of her research. Alexa's story is a perfect example of the power of citizen science--in this day and age, we have an unprecedented ability to communicate and raise awareness about the effects of toxic chemicals, the environmental effect of cell towers, polluting factories and emerging technologies such as fracking to extract natural gas. It is not in the interest of corporate science to ask such "right questions."

Liberating science from corporate influences will require a movement of the people. Citizens must recognize and curb the power that big business science holds over potentially game changing breakthroughs and advances in scientific knowledge. A return to "science for the people" is the quickest route to safer cars, cleaner, renewable and efficient energy, more effective and safer use of drugs and a healthier environment.

For more on this issue, see the chapter "Give Science and Technology Back to the People" of my new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future. Available and autographed from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C.