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Bias In Biotechnology: Who's Paying The Piper?

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I have recently begun to speak out in public about the contentious issue of genetically modified organisms, As a result, I have been accused by public relations spokespeople and executives of biotechnology companies of being either uninformed because I am not actively engaged in research or biased in my opinions..

I have recently begun to speak out in public about the contentious issue of genetically modified organisms. As a result, I have been accused by public relations spokespeople and executives of biotechnology companies of being either uninformed because I am not actively engaged in research or biased in my opinions.

As human beings, we perceive life through perceptual lenses shaped by our values, beliefs and professional interests. The expression "he who pays the piper calls the tune" is recognition that the source of one's paycheck, research grant or stock dividend exerts a powerful influence over one's actions.

I am a geneticist by training. At Amherst College in Massachusetts, my honours thesis was in genetics, as was my PhD research at the University of Chicago. After a year of postdoctoral research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, my first university position was in the genetics department at the University of Alberta. At the University of British Columbia, I taught advanced genetics and, in 1969, was awarded the EWR Steacie Memorial Fellowship as the "outstanding research scientist in Canada under the age of 35." For more than a quarter century, genetics was an all-consuming passion in my life. I have not ceased thinking like a scientist simply because I'm no longer actively engaged in research.

In the 1970s, revolutionary techniques to manipulate DNA, our genetic material, provided profound insights into the structure and function of genes. One method involved "recombinant DNA," in which genes from unrelated species could be hooked together and inserted into living cells. This was a powerful tool that quickly became a standard lab technique. But it was also clear that such technologies could be applied with enormous social and financial implications.

As a columnist for the National Research Council publication Science Forum, I wrote in August 1977: "For young scientists under enormous pressure to publish to secure a faculty position, tenure or promotion, and for established scientists with 'Nobelitis,' the siren's call of recombinant DNA is irresistible." I went on to publicly declare: "Can the important questions be addressed objectively when one has such high stakes in continuing the work? I doubt it. Therefore, I feel compelled to take the position that…no such experiments [on] will be done in my lab; reports of such experiments will not acknowledge my grants; and I will not knowingly be listed as an author of a paper involving recombinant DNA."

I had achieved far more in science than I had ever hoped or dreamed, so I felt some of us whose careers and reputations were not in jeopardy had to forego this work to take part, as scientists, in discussions of moral and ethical questions free from the bias of vested interests. Scientists working for the nuclear, tobacco and petrochemical industries speak from the perspective of their employers; there is no reason to suppose that scientists in biotechnology would be any different. Eventually, I stopped taking government grants altogether so I wouldn't be vulnerable to any influence of outside agendas.

As a popularizer of science through newspaper columns, television and radio, rather than losing my interest in biotechnology and its implications, I have written extensively on it over the years. So it is puzzling to me when individuals, some not even scientists but spokespeople for the biotechnology industry, call my credibility into question. I deliberately gave up the day-to-day excitement of scientific research to remain a credible discussant on the moral and ethical implications of new genetics. At the very least, all who participate in this discussion ought to be forthright about the sources of our funding, positions in companies and any other factors that might influence our perspectives. Bias in debate over biotechnology is currently too skewed by the clamour of those with much to profit from it.

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