One of the most striking aspects of John Paul II’s papal leadership has been his frequent and outspoken forays into science, especially the life sciences. His positions on abortion, sexuality, and contraception have alienated vast numbers of Catholics and non-Catholics. Many people had seen his tenure in the Vatican as an opportunity for progressive leadership on issues ranging from AIDS in Africa to the reproductive rights of women. They have been disappointed. But his staunch orthodoxy has had one unexpected, and some would say beneficial, consequence—a decisive opposition to the commercial exploitation of science.
In a letter to the apostolic nuncio in Poland on March 25, 2002, John Paul II condemned the “overriding financial interests” that operate in biomedical and pharmaceutical research. These forces, he wrote, prompted “decisions and products which are contrary to truly human values and to the demands of justice.” His particular target was “the medicine of desires,” by which he meant those drugs and procedures that are “contrary to the moral good,” serving as they do the pursuit of pleasure rather than the eradication of poverty. In an especially thoughtful passage, he wrote that
the pre-eminence of the profit motive in conducting scientific research ultimately means that science is deprived of its epistemological character, according to which its primary goal is discovery of the truth. The risk is that when research takes a utilitarian turn, its speculative dimension, which is the inner dynamic of man’s intellectual journey, will be diminished or stifled.
Sheldon Krimsky, a physicist, philosopher, and policy analyst now at the Tufts University School of Medicine, puts it more bluntly. In Science in the Private Interest, a strongly argued polemic against the commercial conditions in which scientific research currently operates, he shows how universities have become little more than instruments of wealth. This shift in the mission of academia, Krimsky claims, works against the public interest. Universities have sacrificed their larger social responsibilities to accommodate a new purpose—the privatization of know- ledge—by engaging in multimillion-dollar contracts with industries that demand the rights to negotiate licenses from any subsequent discovery (as Novartis did, Krimsky reports, in a $25 million deal with the University of California at Berkeley). Science has long been ripe for industrial colonization. The traditional norms of disinterested inquiry and free expression of opinion have been given up in order to harvest new and much-needed revenues. When the well-known physician David Healy raised concerns about the risks of suicide among those taking one type of antidepressant, his new appointment as clinical director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health was immediately revoked. Universities have reinvented themselves as corporations. Scientists are coming to accept, and in many cases enjoy, their enhanced status as entrepreneurs. But these subtle yet insidious changes to the rules of engagement between science and commerce are causing, in Krimsky’s view, incalculable injury to society, as well as to science.
This escalating corrosion of values derives from a sharp change …