© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2002
As medical science races toward cures for terrible diseases, it would be nice to think that researchers eagerly share data and wisdom, helping humanity to live longer and better.
But that would be wrong. Cooperation is out; keeping secrets is in.
A study today in the Journal of the American Medical Association says researchers often refuse to share materials and information, damaging other areas of inquiry and slowing progress in the battle against disease.
According to a survey of almost 2,000 geneticists and other scientists in 100 U.S. universities receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health:
Nearly half the geneticists who asked other scientists for information related to already published research said their requests were turned down.
Because they were denied access to data, more than a fourth of the geneticists were unable to replicate and confirm others' research. Perhaps worse, one in five abandoned a promising line of research.
What happened? Money happened.
"The competitive forces in science, the potential for commercial application and resource limitations all work against the ideal of open sharing in science," said David Blumenthal, director of the Massachusetts General Institute for Health Policy and senior author of the JAMA article.
The change has been under way for more than a decade.
"Researchers used to be like monks . . . vows of chastity and all that," said Tom Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a New York research institute in bioethics. "But that was before the advent of molecular biology and genetic engineering. The stakes are enormous now. It used to be the biggest reward any scientist could hope for was reputation or tenure.
"Now, in every petri dish and test tube, there's a potential to make one's fortune."
Drug companies develop and sell drugs. Universities make money from the licenses they grant on their patents, and success attracts more federal money. And, of course, the researchers themselves can profit according to whatever kind of deal they have been able to work out with the universities.
"We have set up a competitive system," said Eric G. Campbell, an instructor in health policy at Harvard Medical School and another author of today's JAMA article. "To the first go the spoils."
And while some argue that the two Cs -- competition and compensation -- have accelerated the progress of research, Campbell said that misses the point.
"The key question is not whether medical science is progressing rapidly," he said, "but whether it is progressing as rapidly as it can."
Sharing has its risks, however, especially for small labs.
Among geneticists responding to the survey, 12 percent said they had turned down requests from other researchers for information or materials. They cited many reasons, including a lack of money and time and the need to protect their own and their colleagues' ability to publish future research findings.
Gary Litman is a molecular geneticist at the Children's Research Institute in St. Petersburg, a facility supported by the University of South Florida and All Children's Hospital.
He noted the disparity between small labs and "megascience," the kind of big lab or private company that can spend large sums of money and put a lot of people to work on a problem very quickly.
"If a lab works on a problem for years, only to find out that a larger more well-funded lab is about to roll over the research, you can understand their anxiety. Future grant funding for the small lab, future positions for the staff . . . are all at risk. We make an effort to honor all inquiries but are reluctant to distribute original research findings unless there is a clear understanding that these are privileged communications."
David Morgan, a professor and Alzheimer's researcher at USF, said he was "amazed that anyone actually admitted that they intentionally denied someone access to their data."
"I have never had anyone outright deny my request for . . . materials, but instead simply not get around to giving them to me, at least in a timely fashion."
Once long ago, Morgan said, "Scientists were motivated almost exclusively by ego. So long as they received attribution, they would be happy if someone else made a discovery using their data. Increasingly, we are being motivated by pecuniary gain. Because 0.1 percent of our colleagues have been able to convert their discovery into some tangible financial asset, we all think that every idea we have is a gold mine."
- David Ballingrud covers science for the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at (727) 893-8245 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.