ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
 
Date:  8 November 2000

BIG  MONEY  -  BAD  SCIENCE

1.    "Big Money - Bad Science" teach-in

There is a teach-in BIOTEC Conference in Canada November 10 "Big Money - Bad Science" (Petercoombes@hotmail.com)  followed by a 45 min phone-in featuring Dr /Arpad Pusztai on 12 November 9 pm (Greenwich time).  The show will be streamed at www.cfun.com.

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2.    Big Money / Misdirected Science - at a university near you!

Recently we posted some excerpts from articles including 'The Kept University' which pointed not only to the increasing corporate take over of academia, particularly in the bio-sciences, but how often this makes no sense in terms of either general economic benefit or the public good.

Now the public funding body for the bio-csiences for the UK - the BBSRC, headed by the former boss of Zeneca, Peter Doyle - which has been relentlessly pushing bio-biz opportunities for the last decade or more, reports that as closures and rationalisation  plans dog other university sectors, biosciences are experiencing unprecedented growth.

Note: "In an attempt to exploit the academic and commercial opportunities presented by the decoding of the human genome, the government has overseen an unprecedented shift in research funding priorities over the last three years. Increases in the science budget have focused largely on
post-genomic science: structural biology; bioinformatics; and functional genomics. For many, the ultimate goal is to use this rich source of information to improve medical treatment beyond our wildest dreams."

Dreams is the word.  As Dr Maewan Ho amonst others has poined out, the causes of human ill health are overwhelmingly environmental and social.  In fact, so-called 'single gene diseases' account for less than 2% of all diseases! Thus, the focus on genes in tackling disease is diverting attention and vast resources away from the real causes of ill health.

Worryingly, the biobiz fever fuelled by a "toys for boys" mentality, patents and profits is occurring within a vast perimeter of ignorance - up to 95% of the human genome is described as consisting of what is known as 'junk DNA', because geneticists have simply no idea what functions it serves!

So the big money - public as well as private - is going where profits beckon and not where the public good or enlightened scientific enquiry requires. According to the article, this month the Government - its Science Minister being, of course, Lord Sainsbury - is expected to announce yet another funding boost for the life sciences.

"Rest assured, the government is ready to support and enhance the competitiveness of the biotechnology industry." - Mo Mowlam, the Government's chief spokesperson on GM

For information on how the BBSRC's committee's are stuffed with biotech industry figures see:  http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/scigag.htm

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The Guardian (London) 7 November 2000 (Guardian Education Pages)

Dawn of a new era; Commercial Potential Has Helped Boost Grants For Life Sciences, Says Lee Elliot Major

Genetically modified foods, untrustworthy biotech companies and the  spectre of designer babies may have tarnished its social image, but life sciences is now one of the fastest-growing university disciplines. As closures and rationalisation plans dog departments in the physical sciences, biosciences are experiencing unprecedented growth, according to the main government funding agency for the subject.

The explosion of knowledge and opportunities in the biosciences has brought a significant shift in university employment, with a 20% growth in life science departments over the past five years, contrasting with declining numbers in physical sciences,' the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences
Research Council reports. The main concern for the council's senior officials is to meet the increasing
Demands for research funds from universities' flourishing  life sciences communities. There are fears that competition for research grants will be so intense that success rates for applications will Plummet.

Research fields are in a constant state of flux, as developments open up uncharted frontiers while activity in already extensively mapped areas fades. The nineteenth century is known, for example,
as the golden era of chemistry. Physics, meanwhile, prospered during the first half of the twentieth century.

Biology has been in the ascendant for the last 50 years - since Crick and Watson discovered the structure of DNA. The current expansion of life sciences in universities , though, signals the emergence of a hybrid breed of multidisciplinary researchers, defying these broad scientific classifications. While the research focuses on living organisms, it depends on a blend of expertise from physical, chemical and computing sciences. This is the era of the post-genomic scientists' - researchers trying to make sense of the mountains of data being created by the human genome project.

For many, the ultimate goal is to use this rich source of information to improve medical treatment
beyond our wildest dreams. But it is money driving the growth of academic disciplines. In an attempt to exploit the academic and commercial opportunities presented by the decoding of the human genome, the government has overseen an unprecedented shift in research funding priorities over the last three years. Increases in the science budget have focused largely on post-genomic science: structural biology; bioinformatics; and functional genomics.

The main beneficiaries among government research agencies have been the BBSRC and the Medical Research Council. Although even the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council now has its own life sciences programme. For its part, the BBSRC is funding six new functional genomics centres, dealing with key organisms for which the genomic sequences are known, and six complementary structural biology centres, to provide molecular information on the function of genes.

But perhaps the most important development has been the financial impact on universities of the Wellcome Trust, the world's largest biomedical research charity. From PhD stipends to grants for large Wellcome research units, the money injected by the charity during the last decade has been a key element in the growth of biomedicine in the UK.

 The Trust now channels about pounds 400m a year into universities. The government is also keen that this new breed of academics becomes more entrepreneurial and works closely with the UK's biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. If all this attention were not enough, following the last spending review the government, convinced that the Glaxo Wellcomes of the future will emerge from these strong academic-industry links, is this month expected to announce another funding boost for the life sciences.

[Entered November 7, 2000]
 

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