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?