Biotech boom or bust

These are heady days for the biotechnology industry. Billions of dollars continue to pour into biotech companies even as most are yet to turn a single cent of profit. And stimulated by the combined intersection of the Sacramento region’s agricultural resources and the research university campus of UC Davis, the local biotech stakes are high and getting higher.

The enhanced capacities to read and manipulate the genetic material of any living organism, from the smallest microbe to Shaquille O’Neal, is driving innovative research and development efforts in the region’s public and private sectors. Indeed, so much money is expected to be made in biotechnology that the distinction between private and public has virtually disappeared, as UC Davis, like its academic counterparts everywhere, seeks to lock down royalties and licensing fees for its biotech discoveries.

But however narrowed the difference between the public and private sector becomes, the distinction remains vitally important in what we can and should properly demand from a University of California. In the midst of increasing direct participation of our most vital public research institution and its scientists with the dreams of joining the ranks of the “Molecular Millionaires,” there is a growing need to clarify principles and programs that may serve as balancing and corrective counter forces.

One principle that could serve to protect the integrity of the university and its researchers is “transparency”: whatever involvements the university or its employees have with the private sector should be openly acknowledged and easily accessible to the public. Currently, no one knows what deals UC Davis has with the private sector, nor what financial holdings its research scientists are in part driven by. Our UC professors and campuses no longer operate in a nonprofit world. But that fact should not usher in an era of secret dealings that undermine the university’s self-proclaimed public service mission. No commercial partner is worth the tradeoff of integrity of the university’s basic research.

Such financial openness will find an environment of stronger support if UC Davis deepens its commitment to a bioethics program, fully exploring the legal, social and ethical implications of biotechnology. The campus has an opportunity to develop the richest bioethics program for agricultural sciences anywhere in the world. But so far a bioethics program seems to be an opportunity that has mostly languished.

No one wants to stand in the way of the development of the therapies and cures to address the terrible diseases that ravage plants, animals and humans. But the unmonitored distortion of our public research commitments threatens to turn our biotech boom into a bioethical bust.