The nostalgists for academic purity will be fretting again, now that Stanford University, in quest of the big bio bucks, has the patent covering the basic recipe for genetic engineering.
Unseemly, it will be termed -- as was done last fall when Harvard, under a national spotlight, nervously backed off from a scheme for industrially exploiting its own skills in the same booming field. A sound decision, said the purists, for it wouldn't be proper for a university to be directly involved in profitmaking from its intellectual operations. The lure of mammon might contaminate judgments on faculty appointments, tenure and selection of research projects. But above all, the commercial spirit was seen as interfering with the free discussion and open publication that are depicted to outsiders as the essence of academic spirit.
All of which makes you wonder what people think has been happening in academe over the past two or three decades. Pure it has not been -- but necessarily so, because, while high-tech America has been pressing universities to be one-step service centers for multiple ills and hopes of society, it has generally sought bargain rates in the academic marketplace.
It can be countered, of course, that the schools were unwise to come out of the cloister and that they surely could have avoided a lot of trouble by saying no, thanks, to such diverse opportunities as running nuclear bomb labs, redressing social wrongs and counseling government. But the reality is that universities are now stretched thin because they were lured and prodded into vastly expensive undertakings -- such as medical schools and big science labs -- that they never could have attempted without government encouragement.
For example, a decade ago, in the keyday of expansionism, federal money accounted for half of the revenue going through the nation's medical schools; the government share is now down to 29 percent. There's been a similar dropoff in federal funds to support biomedical laboratories that were expanded or built in response to long-ago (and now forgotten) declarations of "war" against this or that disease. But the labs remain, and with them, tenured staffs.
The effect of start-and-stop policies, compounded by inflation and sagging returns on endowments, is easy to discern on big and little campuses throughout the country. Deferred maintenance -- perhaps the least of the schools' problems -- has piled up to a nationwide total estimated at more than $5 billion. More basic is the fact that the universities have become infused with a money-raising spirit that makes laughable the idea that the yen for gene-splicing wealth is something new and dangerous.
The grungy facts are that universities are so hard pressed for money that faculty hirings are commonly linked to the ability to hustle up financial support from outside sources. In effect, applicants are told: come to work, but bring along money for your salary. Another product of austerity is increasing reliance on low-cost part-timers, often referred to as "research associates," who are becoming academe's version of the migratory worker. They're a joy for the treasurer's office, but, with good reason, generally feel ill-used and exploited by the "community of scholars" so dear to mythologists. Unlike graduate students, also traditional victims of the quest for cheap help, research associates are beyond hope of permanent employment.
But what of the argument that the commercial spirit will undermine the traditions of openness? There, too, nostalgia has obscured reality, because in today's high-stakes competition for scientific recognition and reward, scientists tend to be cautious about tipping their hands. One of the few to speak openly of this is 1977 Nobel laureate Rosalyn S. Yalow, who remarked in an interview that a menace of the modern scientific life is that reviewers of grant applications "are also our competitors." No scientist, she added, "is going to tell his rivals what his plans are going to be," and that leads to caution in discussing research, she says.
The heavy dependence on federal money regularly provokes criticism and unpleasant warnings on and off campus. But what are the alternatives, short of zapping some institutions, and crimping others?
Clearly, the schools have to adapt to the new economy and find new sources of money. For those fortunate few that are on the frontiers of science, why not derive wealth from home-grown discoveries?
The scrimping that now goes on does not contribute to academic vitality. If there's to be a restoration of those revered old values, it will have to be underwritten in some fashion. Those universities that can do it with bio bucks ought to be encouraged to do so rather than sink slowly into genteel poverty.