A few months ago, the first draft of the human genome was completed. This was the first milestone of the Human Genome Project, to sequence the entire genetic makeup of the human race. The project was previously undertaken by two separate groups of researchers, one privately funded and the other state owned. It was only with the cooperation of these two groups that this milestone of the project, and of human scientific advancement, was rescued.
Scientific research conducted in the pursuit of commercial profit refers to the creation of knowledge so that it can be used specifically for the acquisition of wealth, by its nature often done by private companies. This is in contrast to research conducted by governmental agencies which are usually non-profit, so that the information gained from research belongs to the people. This essay shall explore the merits and demerits of commercially oriented research.
The basis of scientific research is gaining knowledge and in its use, often to improve the world. In both respects this commercially driven research proves to be superior, as research is done more efficiently and limited resources are focused on relevant places where its use is most needed.
Firstly, commercial profit may provide a greater drive for the scientist to work harder. Whilst it may be true that there exists scientists who do their jobs for the love of science and the noble cause of increasing human knowledge, it must be admitted that for the greater majority, money is a greater motivating factor, simply because research is just a career choice. Similarly, many are reluctant to enter a scientific career as the job security is low and payment uncertain. With commercial research, scientists are more likely to be better paid, and with the scientific community still growing, more research is likely to be done.
Funding, a major problem of non-profit research, is also dealt with. Research is an expensive process and funding is needed to purchase expensive equipment and reagents, as well as pay the scientists conducting the research. In the scientific community, senior scientists are often turned into administrators who spend most of their valuable time looking for research funding, and as a result conduct little of their own research. Also the research runs into more obstacles when new equipment is needed for new research, as the funding has to be justified. In research conducted for profit, the promise of profit means that the capital investment will be provided, and research can often be conducted smoothly without interruptions.
In this way it can be seen how commercially oriented research is done more effectively, but often the areas of such research tend to be limited to those which promise the most financial reward. It takes a layman understanding of economics to comprehend that the supply is specified by the demand. In order to maximise its profits, a research company has to research into technologies that solve the most demanding problems. As such, the problem that people will pay most to be solved, often the most pertinent problems, will be the focus of this research. Here, a clear distinction should be made between urgent problems and problems that will provide the most profits if solved, the implications of which will be shown later. Despite this distinction, it is often the case where the technology that brings about most profits to the company that developed it would be most useful to the public. An example would be the development of humulin, a synthesised form of insulin which is needed by people suffering from diabetes mellitus, a condition which affects a large percentage of the human population. Humulin, like most biotechnology, was researched primarily for the impending profits that it will provide, and only secondarily for the sake of science or human benefit. This is in contrast to, for example, research into theoretical physics, which is often publicly funded as it has little immediate practical implications. Thus, commercial research directs the research towards some of the most urgent problems in society.
However, there has been much public debate over commercial research, especially as it has led to the privatisation of knowledge that some say should belong to the public. Many, for example, advocate that the knowledge of human DNA sequence is a right of all humans as it belongs to everyone, and thus should not belong privately to anyone. Commercially driven research demonstrate these other disadvantages.
Ironically, just as profits direct research towards the more important problems, it directs it away from the most urgent ones. Research is done into technologies that will provide large profits, such as the booming telecommunications industry, but little is done for problems that require solving but promise no profit. Eight percent of the population of the African continent is infected with the human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV), and even if there is no cure, drugs to ameliorate the symptoms of the disease and the suffering the people have to endure would help greatly. However, there seems to be little advancement in that field, precisely because the profits from such research are minimal. Africa is a poor continent and cannot pay a lot for potential drugs, even though it is such a pressing problem. These drugs are thus seldom developed.
Even if they were, the push for profits will mean that few, especially from the poorer countries, will derive benefit from them. This is because to cover the costs of research, the companies have to sell the drugs at exorbitant prices, out of reach of many of those already suffering. Thus, many in Africa cannot obtain relief from their diseases, not because the cure is not available, but because it is too expensive. Compassion and morality, unfortunately, have no place in profit-driven research.
As such, commercial research often treads across moral boundaries. The lure of profits often cause scientists to override morality, Stem-cell research, for example, holds great potential for profits as a promise of an elixir of life, able to replace every part of the body and provide eternal youth. Such a technology would increase the life of many, as well as the wealth of the researchers. Unfortunately, it entails the destruction of life. Embryos, precursors to human babies, are destroyed to provide the stem-cells for the research. Some scientists have no qualms about this destruction of life, presumably for the advancement of science, but evidently for the pursuit of profit.
Lastly, privatisation of knowledge may impede scientific progress sometimes, instead of increasing the rate of research. Scientific research involves working on previous knowledge to create new knowledge. The invention of the printing press led to the Industrial Revolution as knowledge was more easily shared. With the privatisation of knowledge, scientific information becomes a currency to be closely guarded and not to be shared. As such, many companies working on similar projects waste resources to research repetitive information that has already been discovered, thus slowing down the overall rate of research.
To conclude, cooperation would be the key to utilising the advantages of commercial research while minimising its disadvantages. Just as the first draft of the human genome was completed by the government and privately funded research groups working together, government agencies and private organisations should work hand in hand to conduct scientific research
Marks: Content = 26/30, Expression = 15/20. Total = 41/50 (A1).
Examiner’s comments: A wide-ranging and detailed discussion — very good. You have mentioned many of the current issues surrounding the topic.
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