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March 30, 2006


Why I fear academic cooperation with industry

To the editor:

Vice president of the University Senate Michael Pinsky, in his column about the upcoming plenary on “Commercialization and Academic Innovation,” (University Times March 16) tells us that “academia and industry have often been at odds, despite having similar desires to improve the nature of things and better society.” He argues that the past easy flow of ideas from universities into the public domain has hindered commercial development of new knowledge. He uses a well-worn metaphor, “oil and water,” to portray the separation between these two factions.

Among the reasons Professor Pinsky provides for tensions between scientists and industrialists is the fear by faculty that “such activities (i.e. cooperating with industry) might tarnish their academic stature.” The meeting to be held on March 28, he tells us, will provide “the mayonnaise” to anneal this separation.

I am one of the fearful. My concern extends well past possible tarnishing of my academic reputation. I am deeply troubled that this blurring of the line between academic pursuit of knowledge and the profit motive is already in full swing. Further tightening of this union will permanently damage what is left of an academy in which free inquiry, uninhibited sharing of ideas between colleagues, rapid uncensored publication of scientific findings, and unbiased reporting of data and conclusions will come under the purview of market-conscious nonscientists and executives.

The separation between science and the marketplace narrowed in 1980, with the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act. Bayh-Dole legislated the patenting of research ideas, and radically changed the ecology of academia. I was at Harvard medical school in 1980 when Bayh-Dole became law, and anyone who was awake at that moment could feel a tectonic shiver in the state of things. A career in science had generally been a route to genteel poverty, unless genes or marriage had furnished a sinecure. Suddenly, it became possible to visualize becoming rich as well as traveling to Sweden. I remember a young bright molecular biologist colleague, facing the future, telling me that the “thing to do was get a patent.” He was one of the first of many to focus on this new pursuit.

At about the same time I was invited by the chief developmental officer at Harvard to a private dinner at the St. Botolph’s Club. All of the stars of Harvard medicine were in attendance. After lobster, French wine and rack of lamb were served, at 10 p.m. we were told of the provenance of the meeting. It began, we were told, when the president of MIT and the president of a major oil company were seated together in the first class compartment of a transcontinental airplane. The discussion turned to the current state of the environment, and they agreed that pollution was here to stay. Wasn’t it time, they agreed, that the best scientists in this country began to study mechanisms and means to make the host more resistant to environmental toxicants? One by one, senior professors, departmental chairs and institute heads rose to say that this was the way of the future, and it was the appointed role of the leading research institutes in the world to lead this new departure. There was a single demurrer to the discussion.

That experience, and many others, has made me skeptical of Professor Pinsky’s statement that business desires to improve the “nature of things and better society.” This notion is particularly difficult to digest after reading stories detailing the suppression of toxicity data on Bextra and Vioxx by Pfizer and Merck.

The distinguished sociologist of science Robert Merton suggests that the ethos of science entails universalism: it applies to every one without exclusion; communalism: the fruits of science belong to everyone; disinterestedness: knowledge is separated from bias of any sort; and organized skepticism: the need for clear evidence. The thrust of commercial dollars directly conflicts with these ethical principles.

Pinsky ends by stating that the “…Plenary session represents our attempt to show faculty the benefits of commercialization….” Nowhere can one find any mention in either his article or in the program of the plenary of issues such as conflict of interest, data manipulation or any other obstacles to pure science. It is clear that one of the most important roots of the American medical dilemma, clearly displayed by the fact that we spend more money per capita than any other country to deliver mediocre care to a limited segment of our people, is the deleterious actions of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. This can be readily confirmed by reading the daily press.

These issues require thorough study and debate but, so far, there is only silence. The professoriate has watched this process without debate, protest or informed discussion. Why are they silent? What do they fear? It is past time for a thorough and wide inquiry into these issues by the faculty at large, and the medical faculty in particular. That would be a plenary session worth attending.

Herbert Needleman


Psychiatry and Pediatrics

School of Medicine


Supreme Court is right about military recruiting on campus

To the editor:

At the risk of offending Pitt’s professoriate, especially our distinguished law school faculty, I am driven to weigh in with two cents’ worth of vigorous and irreversible concurrence with the Supreme Court’s virtually unanimous (8-0) decision to sustain the Solomon Amendment, which decrees that a college or university that denies access to military recruiting on its campus will forfeit federal subsidies and grants earmarked for that institution.

Faculty who object to military recruiting have done so on the basis of their disagreement with the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the armed services.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If other organizations — private, public, profit, nonprofit, foreign, domestic, civilian, military or whatever — are free to recruit for their entities, so too should military recruitment be accorded the same privilege. To cave in to the opponents of military recruitment on campus is to be unconscionably intimidated by self-righteous professors who are, let’s face it, giving in to the tyranny of the minority. In my judgment, unfettered free market recruiting trumps ideological support of gays and lesbians.

The best way to defeat the odious “don’t ask, don’t tell” ill-advised policy is through Congressional legislation, not by the feeble and futile effort to bar military recruitment per se.

Robert Perloff

Distinguished Service Professor

Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business


What about unsafe motor vehicle operation in Oakland?

To the editor:

I appreciated Pitt Officer Ronald Bennett’s detailed report to the Staff Association Council on the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians around campus (see “SAC wants 4% pay increase for those meeting standards,” University Times March 16). I would also like to hear about everything that the University’s Police Department is doing to educate drivers and calm vehicular traffic, including enforcing laws aimed at unsafe motor vehicle operation.

Chris Zurawsky

Communications Director

Learning Research and Development Center


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