Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Market's Invisible Hand and Its Impact on Stem Cell Research

As the $3 billion California stem cell agency intensifies its efforts this year to push cures into the clinic, a Canadian academic is raising a host of serious questions about the drive towards commercialization in scientific research.

Exhibit No. 1 was stem cell research, in an article Monday in The Scientist magazine. It was written by Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and a professor at the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health, University of Alberta. He said,
"Commercialization has emerged as dominant theme in both the advocacy of science and in the grant writing process.  But is this push good for science? What damage might the market’s invisible hand do to the scientific process?"
Caulfield noted that research has played a role in commercial enterprises and that the goal-oriented research has led to important developments. But he also wrote,
"There are many recent examples of how commercialization plays out in top-down policy approaches to science.  The UK government recently justified a £220 million investment in stem cell research on the pledge that it will help stimulate an economic recovery. A 2009 policy document from Texas made the optimistic prediction that stem cell research could produce 230,000 regional jobs and $88 billion in state economic activity.  And President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address went so far as to challenge American researchers to view this moment in time as 'our generation’s Sputnik moment'—the opportunity to use science and innovation to drive the economy, create new jobs, and compete with emerging economies, such as China and India. 
"The impact of this commercialization pressure is still unfolding, but there is a growing body of research that highlights the potential challenges, including the possibility that this pressure could reduce collaborative behavior, thus undermining scientific progress, and contribute to the premature application of technologies, as may already be happening in the spheres of stem cells and genetic research. For example, might the controversial new Texas stem cell research regulations, which allow the use of experimental adult stem cell therapies without federal approval, be, at least in part, a result of the government’s belief in the economic potential of the field? 
"Such pressure may also magnify the growing tendency of research institutions and the media to hype the potential near future benefits of research—another phenomenon that might already be occurring in a number of domains and could have the effect of creating a public expectation that is impossible to satisfy. 
"Furthermore, how will this trend conflict with the emerging emphasis on an open approach to science? A range of national and international policy entities, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, suggest 'full and open access to scientific data should be adopted as the international norm.' Can policy makers have it both ways?  Can we ask researchers to strive to partner with industry and commercialize their work and share their data and results freely and as quickly as practical?"
In late July, the governing board of the California stem cell agency is expected to make some hard financial decisions about where its future spending will be targeted. Just last week it approved a five-year plan with explicit goals for speeding stem cell research into the marketplace.


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