Over the past two decades, the popular press has been in love with the idea of a genetic revolution. But the mood has changed. Headlines such as “A.M.A. Heralds a Genetics Revolution” (The New York Times, 1993) and “Genetics: The Future Is Now” (Time Magazine, 1994) have been replaced with banners that drip disappointment, such as “The Failure of the Genome” (The Guardian, 2011), “Did They Oversell the Genomic Revolution?” (Globe and Mail, 2011) and from a recent New York Times article: “Study Says DNA’s Power to Predict Illness Is Limited.”
While this is not a full-blown pop-culture backlash, the love affair seems to have fizzled. Similar disenchantment might be emerging in that other “revolutionizing” realm of science, stem cells. Upbeat headlines about “How the Coming Revolution in Stem Cells Could Save Your Life” (Time Magazine, 2009) now compete with pronouncements such as this one: “Stem-Cell Trial Failed to Treat Heart Failure” (NewsDay, 2012).
It is not that genetics and stem cell research haven’t delivered. They have, at least from a scientific and technical perspective. But they haven’t delivered big from a clinical and economic perspective and that was the public promise: new therapies and fuel for economic growth.
To date, there are no revolutionizing medical breakthroughs, few highly predictive genetic tests for common diseases, no transforming and widely applicable regenerative therapies and almost no wealth-promoting products. Some of these may arrive one day. I sincerely hope so. But for this to happen quickly would be an exception to the general rule that science, particularly the biosciences, moves forward by way of tiny, unsteady and (often necessarily retraced and highly regulated) steps.
Many may think I am being too harsh. These are, after all, early days for genetics and stem cell research. But a plea for public patience has rarely been part of the rhetoric attached to these fields. We were promised a near-future revolution, not plodding progress.
Big science is expensive. So big science must promise big things quick.
This is one of the many reasons the federal government’s recently announced research strategy is so disappointing and frustrating. The focus is now squarely on supporting research positioned to promote rapid translation of technologies, economic growth and industry partnerships.
In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, this push to position government-funded research as an engine of economic growth may seem logical. But there are innumerable problems with this commercialization strategy, beyond the reality that it is unclear how areas such as stem cell research and genetics will generate billions in profits.
First, in addition to all the well-documented social issues associated with industry/researcher collaborations and commercialization pressure – biased results, reduced researcher collaborations, data withholding and the potential for the premature and possibly harmful application of technologies – the emphasis on economics will inevitably lead to more of the kind of hype and overly optimistic predictions described above. When research funding is conditional on the potential for economic growth and rapid translation, the research community will find ways to promise economic growth and rapid translation.
Second, as more and more of the publicly funded research community becomes associated with this commercialization agenda, it will become increasingly difficult to find truly independent voices to critique the hype and calibrate expectations. The best science is dispassionate, independent and objective. The promised pursuit of profits is one of the surest ways to erode these qualities.
Third, it will reduce public trust in the science and the scientific community. Our research team recently completed a survey of more than 1,200 Albertans. We found university researchers funded by government to be among the most trusted. But that trust erodes significantly when those same researchers receive funds from industry.
Finally, this strategy fails to recognize how science usually unfolds. It is very difficult to predict what research will be beneficial or commercially viable. This is especially so in areas as scientifically complex as genetics and stem cell research. As the great physicist Marie Curie said: “We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become, like the radium, a benefit for humanity.”
Timothy Caulfield is Canada Research Chair in Health, Law and Policy and author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness .