At an unusual summit meeting yesterday, the leading universities and corporations in gene engineering work agreed to a set of tentative ethical principles for commercializing scientific research.
The session was sparked by the growing concern that the rush to market gene engineering techniques is creating conflicts between universities and businesses.
Some scientists believe that research has become more secretive because of the intrusion of corporations and their need to keep trade secrets, and with the new emphasis on products, scientists are being pushed into research that literally pays off instead of into traditional basic research.
The agreement adopted is voluntary, and critics, who were closed out of the conference, said it was only a weak and equivocal effort to take a stand on the issues.
The meeting near Monterey, Calif., was called by Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University, to try to outline rules that would protect the integrity of academic research while allowing some of its products to be marketed commercially.
Kennedy said in a telephone interview yesterday that the 11-page agreement produced by the conference "doesn't make policy, but outlines the problem" so that universities and businesses can establish their own guidelines from it.
The group of five university presidents and 11 corporate executives reached a consensus on several important points, Kennedy said:
There was a "strong presumption" against allowing businesses, under normal circumstances, to gain exclusive licenses to research work.
Universities should establish explicit conflict-of-interest codes to govern the conduct of their professors.
Universities generally should not own or have substantial equity in companies staffed by their own professors.
Associations between businesses and universities should not impair "openness and communication" among researchers, and if that openness is limited for commercial reasons, the period of secrecy should be brief.
The direction of research in universities should not be governed by commercial interests, but by the intellectual demands of the research itself.
Kennedy said no vote was taken at the two-day meeting, and that those attending are free to disassociate themselves from any part of the agreement. He said the group did not meet "to set up proscriptions or carve up territory," but to make a beginning toward establishing a national consensus on research guidelines.
The agreement was immediately challenged yesterday by a coalition of labor, environmental and consumer groups.
"A lot of this document is window dressing," said Al Meyerhoff, a leader of the coalition. "I was surprised that men of this stature could meet for two days and not address directly the questions of exclusive patent rights, what kind of conflict-of-interest rules we should have, and what kind of public disclosure of researchers' corporate connections we should have."
The coalition objected that the public and many organizations critical of the rushed commercialization were not invited to the meeting.
"I am hopeful but dubious," Meyerhoff said, "that this meeting will open up an avenue of communication."
Kennedy said other meetings will be scheduled to continue to develop research guidelines.
Over the past several years, the lines between commercial and academic research have blurred as virtually all top university researchers in gene engineering have become paid consultants to the more than 100 companies now racing to put gene engineering products on the market.
At the same time, many corporations have made special arrangements with universities in which the corporations have given millions of dollars to the universities in return for the right to exclusive commercial use of gene research.
One of the key points in the agreement is the discussion of whether universities should grant such an exclusive license.
The agreement said, "some people fear allowing a single firm the sole right to develop a patent will necessarily remove competition, slow the development of the patent, or even prevent development altogether."
But Harvard University President Derek Bok said there must be some reward for businesses that support research, and if exclusive licenses are not allowed, then "some research won't get done."
The paper said as a general principle, "it is important for universities and industry to maintain basic academic values in their research agreements. Agreements should be constructed, for example, in ways that do not promote a secrecy that will harm the progress of science, impair the education of students, interfere with the choice by faculty members of the scientific question or line of inquiry they pursue, or divert the energies of faculty members from their primary obligations of teaching and research.
"One way of accomplishing this result," it said, "is to make public the relevant provisions of research contracts with industry. Another method may be to allow a faculty committee or some other competent body to examine all research contracts with industry and assure that their terms are consistent with the central academic values."
Yesterday's meeting was called "Asilomar II" after a 1975 conference at Asilomar, Calif. That meeting codified the first gene research guidelines.
The presidents of three other universities--Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkley--attended yesterday's meeting, as well as executives of 11 corporations, including Dupont, Eli Lilly and Genentech.