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Commentary

Science Needs A Profit Motive
Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, 2-4-05

Pearlstein says that “most systems work best when lubricated with a bit of moral ambiguity”—which is another way of saying that you should never let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

He believes that the “bright line” drawn by the NIH against its scientists taking a stake in commercial enterprises will hinder the development of life-saving new medicines and medical devices.

Pearlstein asks: “What great public purpose is served by preventing them from making a buck by sharing [their informal knowledge] with profit-making companies?” Just a few years ago the major complaint against the NIH was that it was an “ivory tower” institution that didn’t produce medical products that people really needed.

Now it appears headed for another bout of self-imposed isolation.

Do abuses happen? Sure, but rather than dealing harshly with individuals who willfully ignored ethics regulations the agency has “caved to pressure from Capitol Hill to prohibit drug and biotech-related investments and commercial entanglements by their researchers.” Building a Chinese wall between industry and the NIH is like keeping the FBI from talking to the CIA. They may have different missions, but neither one of them will do its job as effectively if they can’t share valuable insights and intelligence.

Pearlstein concludes that “having a fuzzy line, and giving administrators some flexibility in enforcing it” was better for all involved. Undoubtedly, the NIH will come to agree with him.



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