Thursday, June 26, 2014

Scientist for sale!

Every graduate student is faced with the seemingly eternal dilemma of “academia vs industry”. Which one do you pick? I struggled a lot with this false dichotomy throughout my studies and would switch camps from one day to the next as I tried to decide.

As I “grew up”, I saw the antsy-ness in the spouse at wanting a family, and I myself had an incredible need to feel “settled-down”. I wanted a life whose furnishings weren’t selected based on how easy they are to take apart and reassemble for the next move. I started leaning towards a career in industry. I made up my mind sometime in the 4th year of my PhD, after I recovered from the “why on God’s green earth did I get into this mess”-phase? (This phase is experienced by every grad student I know, somewhere in their 4-5th year, where they want to quit and question their poor life choices. I only got through my slump because the spouse drove me to work everyday and forbade me to quit. Literally). I noticed at that point that my supervisor’s primary role was to write grants. I only saw him in the lab when a big paper was about to be published, and journalists came into the lab to take his picture. I decided that I loved lab-work too much and that grant-writing wasn’t the right career for me. On top of that, I did the math and realized that I’d probably be close to my 40’s by the time I was earning enough money to own a decent place with my own washer and dryer.

I didn’t tell my supervisor nor did I tell my committee members. I knew that there were some in academia who would consider my choice to have been “selling out”. But I always thought that if I had made the “wrong” choice, I could always go back to academia. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my choice would represent my ethical standards to the world around me.

As I read comments and criticisms about the biotech industry, about how X study cannot be trusted because it came from a company or was funded by such-and-such, it baffles me that the choice that I made has made me less ethical in the eyes of the public. Somehow, I sold my ethical standards to the highest bidder when I started working in a commercial environment.

Universities do not have a litmus test to measure your ethics. Companies do not have a compass that will help them determine the direction of your moral standards. As such, there are unethical individuals in both areas. More importantly, there are many individuals with a clear sense of what is wrong and right. Science is science. Crummy science can be produced in publically funded labs. Amazing studies can be published by individuals affiliated with an industry. There are many examples of both.

There are so many dichotomies around me that I feel are absolutely false and they’re on a very broad range of topics: science vs religion, organic vs GMO, motherhood vs career… In all these cases, I feel that the dichotomies exist because the issues are not well understood. Without understanding GMOs, it’s difficult for some individuals to see that it could be adopted into organic farming. Without understanding what my faith stands for, it’s difficult for some to see that my beliefs make me a better scientist. And because some individuals do not understand the nature of research and its funding, they believe that receiving funding from an organization or company taints that work. But the two can and, I believe, should co-exist, because the two make for better research. There are certain jobs in government and in academia that I would excel at because of the work I’ve done in industry. To dismiss the skills and training of those in industry by virtue of where they were gained and not because of their quality is a loss to the public arena. For example, if there were a commission set up to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance in public hospitals, wouldn’t you think that a person who worked in a company who made the antibiotics might be an excellent candidate for such a commission? Or is that individual’s motivation to be eternally questioned due to their place of employment? So it irks me to no end that Seralini’s recently zombified “GMOs cause tumors” paper would carry the following disclaimer: "The author(s) declare that they have no competing interests, and that, in contrast with regulatory assessments for GMOs and pesticides, they are independent from companies developing these products.”
I’m not going to review the paper, because Dr Kevin Folta’s blog expresses every thought I had about it and much more. The purpose of this post isn’t even to debate whether the statement cited above is accurate. It’s to argue that even if it is, it shouldn’t matter. In biotech, and tech in general, industry sectors are becoming more and more inbred; meaning that everyone has worked everywhere. Try finding someone in Silicon Valley who has worked for a single employer! It’s nearly impossible. Yet somehow, people are under the impression that if you work for someone for 2-3 years at some point in your career, the company owns part of your soul and can summon you to perform dirty work at the drop of a hat. Don’t you want someone who worked at Oracle to fix the database issues at the Veteran’s department? Don’t you want someone who worked at Google to build the next government-funded website? Or do those experiences somehow bring loyalties into question? Then why would someone who worked at Syngenta not be a great candidate to work at the FDA? Or why should I not dream of working at the NIH or Office of Science in the later years of my career?

When my son, Mr Chubby-Cheeks, was around 18 months, he started noticing my absence when I went to work. My husband decided that the best thing to do would be to teach him the value of what I do so that “Mommy’s at work” wouldn’t become some dreaded place that sequesters one of his parents. So my kid has learned to say “Mommy is a scientist. She makes the world a better place”. As cheesy as it is, I remember tearing up the first time he told me that. I know that it’s the mantra for many researchers and scientists, in industry and academia alike. Yet somehow, it is thought that a cold gloom was cast upon me and my mantra changed to “she wants to destroy the world” as I signed my employment documents (which of course, is the Secret Oath of every scientist). And I don’t even work in Big Ag! I can’t imagine the stigmas that they have to deal with!!

As I read papers and note flaws in their design, particularly studies that use technologies I’m very much familiar with, I genuinely wish that there were more collaboration between industry and academia, because they could help each other so much. But so long as this false dichotomy continues to prevail in the minds of the public and the perceived risk of tainting science remains high, then I understand why it doesn’t happen.

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