“Dismay, Confusion Greet Human Stem Cell Patent Ban“, wails Gretchen Vogel’s headline in the October 28th issue of Science. The news item itself begins with a question: “Has the environmental group Greenpeace dealt a major blow to the medical use of human embryonic stem cells in Europe? That’s what biologists, patent specialists, and lawyers are furiously debating after the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled last week that processes and products that involve such cells are not patentable.”
There’s scant evidence of furious debate in Vogel’s coverage. With the exception of Greenpeace, which is reported to have “welcomed” the ruling, the only real dispute in evidence is over whether the court’s ruling was merely bad or downright catastrophic.
So what hath Greenpeace wrought, exactly? Have they drunk the bible-thumper Koolaid, suddenly decided that Life begins the moment the panties cross the knees and that Zygocide is Murder? Have they somehow got European legislatures to outlaw placentas?
No. In fact, the ruling places no restrictions on hES cell research at all; it just disallows the patenting of products derived from Human genes.
I’m far from a huge fan of all things Greenpeace (although I’m pretty sure I’d line up on their side over anything involving, say, Monsanto). I have a fair amount of contempt for any lobby that plays the shrink-wrapped baby card in lieu of reasoned argument (which is not to say I don’t appreciate how effective such strategies can be). And certain aspects of this ruling — in particular, a definition of “human embryo” that includes zygotes and unfertilized eggs dividing parthenogenetically — strike me as a tad peculiar. None of which alters the fundamental point:
The ruling does not restrict research on Human stem cells. It merely restricts one’s ability to get rich off of it. Nor is this point lost on those who feel burned by its implications. They put it front and center, in fact. Vogel quotes Oliver Brüstle, the dude whose patent catalyzed the whole debacle: “It’s a disaster. It leaves European scientists with just basic research. They have to watch as their research gets made into treatments around the world.”
A horrible prospect, indeed: To see the fruits of your work benefiting all mankind. To work for no other cause than that and the sheer human curiosity of “basic research”.
So it’s finally come to this: the short-sighted defunding of dismissively-labeled “curiosity-driven research” at all levels of government; the Mephistophelian partnerships offered by industry only too willing to take up the slack, with strings attached; the inexorable, cancerous spread of profit-driven research from its original industry habitat into the marrow of academia and government alike. And here we are: at the point where one of the world’s leading scientific journals can report, without any hint of irony, on the unmitigated “disaster” of basic research.
What a sad, ignorant fucktard this Brüstle must be. What a perfect epitaph Vogel has inadvertently crafted from his words.
In my younger, more naive days I used to think that practitioners of law, medicine, politics — any of those professionals who’d have us believe they chose their calling out of some noble desire to “serve the community” — should be paid the minimum wage and no more. Pay for their education, by all means; give them job security and free housing. Make sure that society takes care of those who take care of society— but remove the profit motive. Make sure that the niche appeals only to those who really are primarily interested in the public good. Remove the incentives that attract money-grubbing assholes more interested in getting that third house in the Hamptons and a 1pm tee-off; there’s more than enough room in consumer electronics and the automotive industry for those guys, without letting them piss in the pool of public service.
Yeah, I know. I said I was naive; back then I thought that professionals who were primarily interested in the public good might actually exist.
I got better.