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Wednesday, March 15, 2000 FULL SHOW | HEADLINES | NEXT: G.W. Bush Uses Family Name to Secure $300 Million Deal in...
2000-03-15

Genetics, Ethics and the Biotech Industry

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The United States and Britain today agreed to openly share data from a groundbreaking project to decode the human genetic pattern — a study that could serve as the foundation for developing new medical cures and preventions. [includes rush transcript]

The two countries said they would share raw fundamental data on the human genome, including the human DNA sequence and its variations, with scientists everywhere. A joint statement urged private companies to follow the lead of government laboratories.

The United States and Britain are the leading partners in the nonprofit Human Genome Project, which plans to publish a full genetic map on the Internet by 2003. The information would be free and available to all researchers.

Well, today we are talking to a scientific researcher who has reached the pinnacle of her profession, but has decided to end it. She refuses to conduct research that she believes is unethical and benefits the biotechnology companies.

Guest:

  • Martha Crouch, Professor of Biology at Indiana University in Bloomington. E-mail: Martha Crouch

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve heard about the quint pigs that were just cloned in Virginia, and we’ve also heard about the statement yesterday of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair agreeing to openly share data from a groundbreaking project to decode the human genetic pattern, a study that could serve as the foundation for developing new medical cures and preventions. The two countries say they’ll share raw fundamental data on the human genome, including the human DNA sequence and its variations, with scientists everywhere.

A joint statement urged private companies to follow the lead of government laboratories, the US and Britain and the leading partners in the nonprofit Human Genome Project, which plans to publish a full genetic map on the internet by the year 2003. The information will be free and available to all researchers, say Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

Well, today we’re going to talk to a scientific researcher who has reached the pinnacle of her profession, but has decided to end it. She refuses to conduct research, she says, because she believes it’s unethical and benefits the biotechnology companies. Her name is Martha Crouch, she’s a Professor of Biology at Indiana University, and we welcome you to Democracy Now!

MARTHA CROUCH:

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you talk about your research, your plant research, and why you’ve decided to take a different course of — why you’ve decided to end your career as you know it.

MARTHA CROUCH:

Yeah, actually, I quit my — doing this kind of research in about 1991, so it’s been a while since I’ve done research. I’m going to actually finish it off and leave the university here in a couple months. But it’s not a traditional whistleblower sort of action. I wasn’t upset with a specific application or incident. It was more a problem, in my opinion, with science as usual, that the type of research that is epitomized in what you’ve just discussed, the cloned pigs and the Human Genome Project, is turning the world of living organisms into machines and that, to the extent that organisms aren’t machines, trying to fit them into that model causes pain and suffering of everything that’s alive. And I didn’t want to be a part of that.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Now, in some articles about your — the development in your thinking, it harkens back to the period when you first began to be aware of how some corporations were utilizing the research, the basic research that you had done. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

MARTHA CROUCH:

Yeah, I’ve actually had the opportunity to see quite a bit of the research that my students and I and my colleagues have done be commercialized, which I think was a surprise to me. When I started doing research, I thought of myself as a basic scientist who was getting knowledge and putting it in the wall of information brick by brick, that sort of idea of knowledge as an accumulation of information, and I didn’t really think I would see it applied, but when I did see it applied it was for things like making oil palm plantations more amenable to industrialization so that they were more uniform and could be grown on larger scales and benefit large farmers versus the small farmers who had been growing oil palm before.

Or more recently I saw the types of genes we were studying be used in the “Terminator” technology — I don’t know if you’ve talked about that, but this patent — actually it’s a series of patents by most of the major biotech companies to cause seeds to commit suicide in the second generation so that they can’t be replanted. And those kinds of applications that favor the continuing industrialization of agriculture, for example, at the expense of the environment and the peasant farmer, were the only kinds of applications I was seeing coming out of our research. And none of those were things that I anticipated or approved of or really wanted my efforts to be going into. I came to see that as pretty much inevitable, though, with the way that the system is set up.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Well, you know, on Wall Street these days, next to internet start-ups there are no group of stocks that have been rising more rapidly than biotech stocks. What is your — what are some of your main concerns in terms of the chief dangers that are now on the horizon in terms of genetic engineering and the genetic mapping that is going on in the Genome Project?

MARTHA CROUCH:

Well, you know, it’s kind of like the days of exploration of continents and islands and so forth by the Europeans, where there were these vast areas of land with people that already lived there and all kinds of plants and animals that, because of the technologies of exploration and superior military might and so forth, were opened for exploitation. And so, people were going out and laying claim to this island or that continent, turning them into plantations that could then be used for generating revenue for their country. It’s the same sort of thing.

Now that there’s the technology to look at the genetic make-up of organisms and even people who have various characteristics, people are — the companies and the government researchers who are involved in this are looking with that imperialistic eye at these genes and claiming them as their territory, that they can — if simply by the process of discovery, that you can go out and find a gene and determine the sequence of it, you can own that gene, and then you can exploit it for your own profit.

So there’s huge profit to be made from it. And it’s a period of really discovery and exploration of the genome, but with the same kinds of problems of exploitation that are inherent in that view of the world, that everything is there for you to reap the benefit of, damn the consequences.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you explain what Blair and Clinton have announced yesterday? And also, wasn’t it their representatives who said that you cannot patent the genome?

MARTHA CROUCH:

You know, I’m not sure what was meant by you cannot patent the genome, because I believe that patent law is clear on that, that genes can be patented, that genes from any organism can be patented. So, I’m not sure where that came from, that statement.

I looked up the news on that yesterday. The idea that the information be free and open for all scientists to use, that’s the basic characteristic of science, that when you get new data you publish it in peer review journals that then are available for anyone to look at. And so, that idea is not particularly path-breaking.

The problem was that with the Human Genome Project there were two efforts going on, one by government-funded scientists, and that information has always been open, and the other by private industry, and that was closed. And private industry was actually moving ahead faster than public effort at sequencing.

So, you know, I’m not really an expert in the area of human genome work, but my understanding is that the idea here is to make a recommitment to the idea that this information be in the public realm, but primarily so that the process can go ahead more quickly, that more scientists have access to the information faster so that it can be commercialized more quickly, so that medicines can be developed and so forth, not so that it can be regulated more carefully or prudently or that it go ahead with more caution, but that it be promoted to happen more quickly.

So, in my viewpoint, it sort of depends on how you view the whole technology. It would be as if you were saying, OK, we’re going to develop nuclear energy, and it can be either in the private realm or the public realm, and we feel it should be in the public realm, because we can do it more quickly and efficiently that way. And you might say, well, that’s great, except I have a fundamental problem with nuclear energy. There are things that haven’t been solved about it. There are innate problems with it. So, from my viewpoint, although I’m usually a fan of having knowledge be public rather than private, in this particular case I have such deep reservations about the whole idea of thinking about organisms as just bags of genes and as disease being an individual fault that can be fixed through engineering.

You know, the basic approach to me is the problem, and so whether it’s in the public realm or the private — although it has some consequences, because, of course, we should be able to have more oversight if the information is publicly held — in the long run it doesn’t make a lot of difference to me whether it’s the government sequencing and making the sequences available to all scientists or private companies privatizing it.

AMY GOODMAN:

Professor Martha Crouch, we have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back, a very quick summary question about where you go from here. Professor Crouch still teaches, at least for the next few months, at Indiana University in Bloomington. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN:

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, here with Juan Gonzalez. We learned of the story of Martha Crouch in the Corporate Crime Reporter and the Multinational Monitor in a column written by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman called “The Nature of the Machine.”

It began by saying this: “Imagine this: you study your entire life to reach the pinnacle of your profession. First, you secure an undergraduate degree in biology from Oregon State University, then a Ph.D. in developmental biology at Yale, then onto Indiana University, where you teach and run a lab on the cutting edge of plant research, and you have tenure. You wake up one day and realize by doing the scientific research, you’re creating the roadmap for corporations to come in and apply the science for profit, thus destroying the nature that attracted you to the study of biology in the first place. But by this time you’ve become well known in your field. In 1990, your lab gets the cover story in The Plant Cell, the leading journal of the field, but exactly one month later you decide to write an editorial for the same publication announcing such scientific research is unethical and you’ll no longer conduct such research, thus effectively ending your scientific career. That, in a nutshell, is the career trajectory of Martha Crouch, a professor of biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, ending that career in the next few months.”

Martha Crouch, what are you going to do next?

MARTHA CROUCH:

You know, one of the things that kind of surprised me after being so immersed in high-tech science was how much vibrant and really exciting thinking and research was going on in the alternative sphere. I started thinking about what would agriculture look like if the primary purpose of it was to promote a relationship with plants and the land and feed people rather than feed corporate profit. And I found that there was a community of people doing things like developing permaculture, the Land Institute in Kansas, various indigenous groups around the world rediscovering their traditional agricultures and so forth, that were addressing problems in a holistic way that was really exciting. I’m amazed at the creativity, talent and vibrant energy of people in the alternative agricultural world, and I’ve become part of that world and am connected with people who are trying to reinvent agriculture along more holistic lines. It’s really quite exciting.

AMY GOODMAN:

And you don’t feel you can do that as a professor at Indiana University?

MARTHA CROUCH:

You know, very, very little of that kind of research goes on in universities. And there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is it’s extremely interdisciplinary, and the reward systems are set up in most universities to reward work within a discipline, and if you work outside of that, it has to be a tangent to your main work. So it’s really hard to do that kind of, I guess, undefinable research in a university setting.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And what’s been the reaction of your colleagues in the scientific community to your developing — continually developing critique of what’s going on in research and science?

MARTHA CROUCH:

Mainly it’s been marginalization. You don’t have to think very differently from the mass of your colleagues to be completely marginalized, and to go as far as I’ve gone, basically I’ve become invisible to my colleagues. And when I do show up at a debate or something like that, then, you know, they have to deal with the ideas, but often we’re speaking from such different worldviews that the ideas just whiz past each other up above our heads somewhere. It’s really been difficult to connect in any direct way with my former colleagues.

AMY GOODMAN:

Professor Crouch, if people want to get in touch with you, how can they?

MARTHA CROUCH:

Oh, probably the best way is email, crouch(at)indiana.edu.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s C-R-O-U-C-H?

MARTHA CROUCH:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

(at)indiana.edu.

MARTHA CROUCH:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, and we hope to hear from you soon with all sorts of new discoveries and explorations that you’re involved with outside of the academic world.

MARTHA CROUCH:

Well, I hope so. Thanks a lot.

AMY GOODMAN:

Thanks for being with us.

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