What are the arguments for science being incompatible with profit?

I’ve been hearing a lot of recent whining about business playing too large a role in the development of science. The three most commonly cited examples seem to be (i) the outrageous costs of drugs and medications in the Third World; (ii) using something that can’t be patented and is of big benefit, such as the Human Genome Project, and copyrighting a version of that for private profit; (iii) manipulation to secure the use of potentially harmful products like genetically modified foods with poor disclosure and in ways that hurt small farmers.

But these examples are a little wrong-headed too. The cost of drugs in the Third World by our standards is low, in India a Ventolin puffer cost me as little as 20 American cents. Drugs would not be available at all if companies could not recoup their investments on all the products they consider. The private genome provided competition to make the public research more efficient and provided a comparison to assess its quality – even the private sources publish in public journals. Manipulation of results once obtained is worrisome but has more to do with how equitably and fairly scientific knowledge is applied and not in its development, although these are certainly linked. So why is profit-minded science a bad thing?

And as a subsidiary question, when is manhattan going to come and break my kneecaps for my unenviable record in posting in his forum instead of, say, GD?

I think most people are worried about truly beneficial advances being in the hands of a few for sale only to those who can pay. This is seen in third world countries where people die from routine diseases that are, at best, a nuisance in developed nations (I recall seeing that 5 million children a year die from dehydration and malnutrition cause by diarrhea). Also, the fear is that the need to recoup costs quickly will lead to cutting corners or even falsifying data.
MOST science is not done for profit simply because it’s too risky and uncertain to tie a company’s future to making the one big breakthrough. A lot of profitable advances were developed as an offshoot of basic reasearch done by universities. After the substantial investment is made (usually through grants), the commercialization of the idea is done through licensing or starting up companies to capitalize once the problems are worked out.

What about the argument that it will have been in the companies’ interests to continue to develop life-prolonging treatments for AIDS rather than a flat cure, because the former stand to make more money?

Science is not incompatible with profit. It just shouldn’t be totally dependent upon it.

Dr_Paprika, I’d hate to see anything happen to your kneecaps. So I moved this thread from GQ to GD. That’s about the only positive contribution I can make right now.


I’ve heard this one about cancer as well. Until someone shows me evidence that this is taking place it isn’t something I’ll believe.


PS: Not that I believe it is completely outside the realm of possibility.

I have to agree with Marc here. Considering that we don’t even have a cure for the common cold yet (all we can do is wait the virus out), I can see where research on a much more complex virus such as HIV can be stalling! As it is reaching 17 years after the development of AZT and the patent will be lapsing into the public domain, I don’t see why these companies would sit on a new source of profit/prestige (prestige probably being even more important since it gives them pull when they grovel at the government trough…) that would come with a cure for AIDS!

Gotta agree with the good Dr. here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with profit being at least a partial motivation for coming up with a new product. The government/charity research has its place, but there is not enough money to totally fund such things.

Having a profit motive can also spur competition among research projects. The French/American AIDS research hubbub in the 1980s notwithstanding, if there is some money to be made for the company that develops a new wonder drug, several private companies are more likely to try to develop it. In the vast majority of cases,

Competition = Better

There is certainly a place for government/university/ charitable funded research. Perhaps they could focus more on the scientific projects that do not produce tangible monetary benefits (like that flashing “12:00” on my VCR)

BTW, I have been reading the boards for a while, but this is my first post.

Any company that came up with and patented a cure for AIDS would make a ton of money. They could charge just about anything they wanted for it - at least until the government stepped in. And it’s not like they would cure it all and then stop selling it. It’s a looooooong way from a cure to eradication. Look at smallpox. The first vaccinations were done in the 1800s (actually, in some areas it goes back at least another century or two), but it wasn’t eradicated until the 1980s. And that was one of the all time simplest viral diseases ever in terms of control. No, if an AIDS cure appeared today, I would expect it to remain around for at least decades, with the patent holder raking in the cash the whole time.