Harvard University is thinking of going into business. So is Stanford. Our great schools are toying with the idea of setting up companies to cash in on their own research. What has triggered all this is the work the universities have done in genetic engineering and gene-splicing. It is supposed to become a multi-billion-dollar business, and the universities feel they should have a piece of the action.
What's wrong with it?
I wasn't certain, so I sought out my friend Prof. Heinrich Applebaum in his laboratory. The professor was cutting a gene in half when I found him.
"I almost did it," Applebaum said. "I have to get a sharper knife."
"Professor, I understand the university is going into the gene business for profit. Does this bother you?"
"I should say not. There are big bucks in research, and we're getting sick and tired of doing all the work and letting commercial companies make the money."
"But won't it compromise your academic ideals if you start doing research just for profit?"
"Academic ideals, my foot. We're making money, and that's what a university is for. We've had a great year. Our net is up by 300 percent, and gross sales doubled over the past nine months. Fortune magazine just put the school on its 500 list. My advice to you is to buy stock in the university. We're going to become another Xerox."
"I'm sure of that, Professor. But it seems to me if universities are all starting companies you will become more interested in market potential than in the results of your work. In a few years you'll be doing experiments to enhance the companies you own."
"We are already," Applebaum chortled. "You know the gene I was splicing?
Well, we think we can sell it to the telephone company people to put in their Princess phones, so they can reproduce any color phone they want without painting them. It's probably the biggest breakthrough in gene communications made so far. The business school is very excited about it. If it does as well as we think it will I've been promised a big bonus as well as stock options at $44 a share."
I said, "I guess what I'm driving at is that if the universities have a vested interest in their laboratory work, who will do the pure research which is so vital to the nation?"
"The students," Applebaum said. "They're not included in our profit-sharing plan. They can do anything they want in the labs as long as they don't interfere with our commercial projects."
"But you seem to be changing the entire complexion of what a university is supposed to do."
"That's easy for you to say. Do you know a white rat now costs $65? Viruses are going up, bacteria have doubled in price, and monkey glands are out of sight. A grant from NIH hardly pays for rubber gloves any more. We're in a squeeze, son, and we have to go where the money is."
"Isn't there a danger that if you do research you won't exchange information with any other scientists because you're trying to protect your trade secrets?" w
"I don't know if it's a danger or not, but you can bet your sweet life we're not going to let the people at Harvard and Stanford know what we're up to. They'll just take our findings and try to sell them before we do. We're not in research for our health. I have to go now. I've got a board meeting, and they want me to tell them when we can launch our advertising campaign for our new garbage-eating bacteria. It could be our biggest Christmas item this year."