Collective good versus private profit

One of the clichés of academia which even non-academics know is “publish or perish.” In its most common understanding, it implies that those who publish more are perceived as productive scholars, worthy of recruitment and promotion.

But there are other reasons for publishing. One is to establish priority for one’s ideas. In academia, ideas are the currency that matter and those who have good ideas are seen as creative people. So people publish to ensure that they receive the appropriate credit.

Another reason for publishing is to put the ideas into public circulation so that others can use them and build on them to create even more knowledge. Knowledge thrives on the open exchange of information and the general principle in academia is that all knowledge should be open and freely available so that everyone can benefit from it.

This is not, of course, the case, in the profit-driven private sector where information is jealously guarded so that the maximum profit can be obtained. This is not unreasonable in many cases. After all, without being profitable, companies would go out of business and many of the innovations we take for granted would not occur. So the knowledge is either guarded jealously (say like the formula for Coca Cola) or is patented so that other users have to pay for the privilege of using it.

But the open-information world of academia can collide with the closed, profit-making corporate world. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the drug industry. Much of the funding for medical and drug research comes from the government via agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and channeled through university and hospital researchers. These people then publish their results. But that knowledge is then often built on by private drug companies that manufacture drugs that are patented and sold for huge profits. These companies often use their immense legal resources to extend the effective lifetime of their patents so that they can profit even more.

Another example of a collision between the public good and private profit was the project to completely map the human genome. This government-funded project was designed to be open, with the results published and put into the public domain. Both heads of the Human Genome Project, first James Watson and then Francis Collins, strongly favored the open release of whatever was discovered, because of the immense potential benefits to the public. They created a giant public database into which researchers could insert their results, enabling others to use them. (To see what is involved in patenting genomic information, see here.)

But then Craig Venter, head of the private biotechnology company Celera Genomics, decided that his company would try to map the genome and make it proprietary information, and create a fee-based database,. This was fiercely resisted by the scientific community who accelerated their efforts to map the genome first and make the information open to all. The race was on and the scientific community succeeded in its goal of making the information public. Information on how to access the public database can be found here.

Many non-academics, like the journalist writing about faculty cars, simply do not understand this powerful desire amongst academics for open-access to information. I recall the discussion I had with my students regarding the film Jurassic Park. I hated the film for many reasons and said how bizarre it was that the discoverer of the process by which dinosaurs had been recreated from their DNA, a spectacular scientific achievement, had kept his knowledge secret in order to create a dinosaur theme park and make money. I said that this was highly implausible. A real scientist would have published his results to establish his claim as the original discoverer and made the information public so that others could build on it. But some of my students disagreed. They thought that it was perfectly appropriate that the first thought of the scientist was how to make a lot of money off his discovery rather than spread knowledge.

It is true that nowadays scientists and universities are increasingly seeking to file patents and create spin-off companies to financially benefit from their discoveries. Michael Moore talks about how things have changed and how the drive to make money is harming the collective good;

Thinking about that era, back in the first half of the 20th century, where you had for instance the man who invented the kidney-dialysis machine. He didn’t want the patent for it, he felt it belonged to everybody. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, again, he wouldn’t patent it. The famous quote for him is, “Would you patent the sun? It belongs to everyone.” He wasn’t doing this to become a millionaire. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. During that era, that’s the way people thought.

It may be that I am living in the past and that those students who thought I was crazy about not making money as the prime motivator for scientists and other academics have a better finger on the pulse than I. Perhaps new knowledge is now not seen so clearly as a public good, belonging to the world, to be used for the benefit of all. If so, it is a pity.

POST SCRIPT: Nelson Mandela, terrorist

Did you know that all this time, the US government considered Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist?


  1. Jared says

    To be fair, Mandela DID bomb buildings. He later criticized his own actions and said that his group (the ANC) violated human rights. Even though I am sympathetic with Mandela, I’m not surprised that he was considered a terrorist by the US. Indeed, the CIA tipped off South African police of his whereabouts which led to his arrest.

    What is the distinction between a freedom fighter and a terrorist? I suspect it has something to do with how they approach civilians and human rights. But it seems in common usage it depends on whose “side” you are on.

  2. says

    The point is that the terrorist designation is used only against those with whom one disagrees politically, not for specific acts. If Nelson Mandela is a terrorist because he bombed a building, shouldn’t Bill Clinton also be labeled a terrorist because he bombed Sudan and Afghanistan? And Reagan be labeled a terrorist for bombing Libya?

  3. Ross says

    Oh thank you for raising the terrorist/freedom fighter issue because it gives me a chance to share a quote that rattles around in my head every time this is raised. It’s a spoof conversation between a BBC interviewer and HRH Prince Philip, and it comes from a “Beyond the Fringe” revue from the early sixties:

    BBC: I believe President Kenyatta himself was once imprisoned by the British, was he not?
    HRH: Yes, but you must remember, that was when we thought he was a Mau Mau terrorist. Now, of course, we realize he was a freedom fighter.
    BBC: What exactly is the difference?
    HRH: It’s difficult to tell, as a matter of fact, especially when you’re being disemboweled by one.
    BBC: Yes, I can see how that could give rise to some confusion on the part of the disembowelee.

  4. Rian says

    Of course, the designation between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” is wholly dependent on who’s making the designation, and what side that the fighter is working on.

    If the vast majority of irregular fighters had regular armies, whether we call them terrorists or freedom fighters or whatever, they would not be using irregular tactics. They’d be using regular ones, since we sanctify those a lot more than we do irregular tactics (say, suicide bombing a market as opposed to aerial bombing a city). If you don’t believe me, look up Robert Pape and his book “Dying to Kill: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”.

    As for the actual topic of the post, Ernest Rutherford was excoriated by Lord Kelvin about his attempts to commercialize his radio research in the 1880s. This is definitely not a new topic.

  5. says

    There is a big difference between freedom fighters and terrorist.Most of the freedom fighters used fighting without harmful equipments but the terrorists are using harmful things to spoil the entire human.Thanks for the great post.

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