The rush to commercialize gene-splicing techniques has created a financial dilemma for universities and stirred a bitter new debate in the academic community, researchers told the American Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday.
The debate comes on the now-cooled heels of a long argument over the safety and regulation of gene-splicing, they said.
Several researchers said that gene-splicing companies' financial deals with universities or with individual professors threaten the independence and quality of university research.
Otto Solbrig, a Harvard University botanist, listed several dangers that occur when universities ally themselves with companies in order to earn cash for their coffers.
Secrecy, common in industry because companies want to protect their product lines from imitation and competition, can also become common in universities when they stand to profit from commercial use of their research.
Universities also may begin to favor researchers whose work is profitable rather than scientifically important.
The biggest danger, Solbrig said, is that professors and university departments with financial ties to companies can no longer play the important role of disinterested commentator on such important issues as nuclear energy and the ethics of new biology.
Solbrig and others recommended that university professors be prohibited from holding an interest in a company, or being a director or manager of a company. Some biologists now hold both professorships and financial interests in biotechnology companies, according to biologist Jonathan King of MIT.
Researchers also reviewed the six-year debate over the safety of the splicing technology through which genes are transferred from one organism to another.
Donald Frederickson, who was director of the National Institutes of Health when federal regulations governing gene-splicing experiments were enacted, admitted that there was a conflict of interest when the agency funding most of the research also was the regulating agency.
But he said experience proved that the regulation was well carried out and the public was well represented.
The debate over the safety of gene-splicing has now cooled, researchers said, but as the process becomes commercial, new issues will arise and the debate will go on in a different form.