Science radically different from the past

Four small molecules, the nucleotides – or bases – adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymidine:

(A, C, G and T).

At King’s College London, the biophysicist Maurice Wilkins and the X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin were also working on the structure of DNA. Thanks to their head of department’s bad management they had each separately been given the same problem to work on. Wilkins assumed he was in charge, and passed on Franklin’s critical data to the Cambridge pair. She was unaware that her images of DNA crystals had been “shared’ – or more bluntly, stolen – without her knowledge or consent.

With the last sentence of Crick and Watson’s path-breaking Nature paper, “It has not escaped our notice that the [specific] structure we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material’, DNA’s career was launched.

While the significance for the life sciences was immediately recognised by the international scientific community, there was little public interest. The media did not pick up on its significance, and it was decades before the life scientists learned to practice megaphone science, piling hyperbole on hyperbole, heralding the birth of the HGP

It was Watson’s The Double Helix, published fifteen years later, after both Franklin’s death and the three men’s shared Nobel Prize in 1962, which put DNA into the public arena. When the three gave their acceptance speeches at the Nobel Ceremony none spoke of their late colleague’s contribution. Watson’s book unblushingly revealed the arrogance and ambition of the Cambridge pair, the rivalries, personal jockeying for position, unauthorised acquisition of data and his own total inability to behave appropriately towards Franklin as a senior scientist whose crucial X-ray skills had made the model possible.

Meanwhile the journal publishing a paper also works to amplify its impact and thereby reinforce its own status as a prestige journal, first by online prepublication of the paper and then by providing a summary written by a science journalist to explain the paper’s importance in its field and its possible contribution to health care and wealth creation. These new practices of science communication position the research most favourably in a market where knowledge has become intellectual property. Although the major newspapers all have science correspondents, ‘churning’ – reproducing a press release – has become a common media practice. When this happens the science writers of the fourth estate fail in their critical role and become part of megaphone science.

Meanwhile research is on the move both physically and financially, away from the universities towards spin-off companies and beyond. Big Pharma has got bigger as mergers first hyphenate and then delete once famous names. Burroughs Wellcome became Wellcome became Glaxo-Wellcome became the conglomerate GlaxoSmithKline, leaving the name Wellcome only to the giant London-based charitable trust. This revolution has been fuelled by the hopes of many that biotechnoscience will generate genetic diagnoses that will lead smoothly into clinical interventions, from gene therapy to new drugs. All the known problems of translation, of getting biomedical research innovation from bench to bedside, have been smothered in a sea of hype. In the process, leading biologists and geneticists have become entrepreneurs, interested as much in the value of their stocks and shares as in the smooth and successful running of their laboratories.

This shift in the entire production system of the life sciences with the entry of entirely new stakeholders with different cultural values is exemplified by Watson’s own career path. In the 1990s, as the Director of one of the powerhouses of US molecular biology, Cold Spring Harbor, he was told by one the researchers in the lab, Tim Tully, of a promising new discovery about a molecule that might enhance memory. His scientific excitement, Tully reported, was equalled only by his delight at the prospect of patents and ‘shed-loads’ of money. (Watson’s often quoted and typically caustic interventions in the genomics narrative serve as both benchmarks and catalysts.) Tully, very much one of the new bio-entrepreneurs, responded by spinning out a private company and then leaving Cold Spring to work for it. Fuelled by high-profile praise in the media, Tully became – briefly – a celebrity scientist. But as the hopes for his molecule faded, the firm, like so many start-ups begun with high hopes and readily available venture capital, crashed. The fact that his project later re-emerged phoenix-like from its ashes, refinanced and relocated to California, is indicative of the extraordinary ups and downs of biotechnoscience within globalisation.

Today, for the leading sequencers of the HGP and their successors, prestige, with the Nobel Prize still the ultimate symbolic achievement, remains. But money has joined prestige and become entangled with the control of intellectual property, patents, and access to hugely profitable stakes in instrumentation, biotech and pharmaceutical companies. This new hybrid production system of science is radically different from that of the past.

(An extract from 'Genes, Cells & Brains' by Hilary & Steven Rose)

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