Scientific Capitalism

Of the six scientists awarded the Nobel Prize this year, three for Physics and Chemistry respectively, four had already founded their own companies. Here, in all its splendour, we observe the contemporary figure of the ‘scientist-entrepreneur’, where the stress falls on ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘scientist’ has a merely descriptive function. This figure – not new per se, but recent in its codification – has long been promoted by the world’s universities. It is a synthesis of the two paradigms of our time, neoliberalism, in which human beings are defined as entrepreneurs, of themselves if nothing else; and the neo-feudalism of a cognitive aristocracy, whereby alleged superiority of knowledge or competence entitles a select few to rule over the ignorant masses. Science departments today tirelessly exhort their faculty to become versed in the arcane business of funding procurement, and to pursue areas of inquiry that may be attractive to venture capital. More than a scientist-entrepreneur, the researcher today is becoming a scientific entrepreneur, in the same way one might be a real estate or a textile entrepreneur.

Now it seems that this ideal is favoured by the jurors of the Swedish Academy. This year’s Prize in Physics rewarded the research into an obscure, esoteric quantum property that puzzled even Einstein (who famously called it ‘spooky action at a distance’). Obscure, yes, but with potentially revolutionary applications in the field of quantum computing and therefore highly appealing to investors. It is no surprise, then, that two of the three laureates were entrepreneurs: John Clauser, founder of J. F. Clauser & Associates, and Alain Aspect, co-founder of PASQAL. The three Chemistry laureates were meanwhile recognized for their ‘development of a new method for assembling new molecules’. The technique, called ‘click chemistry’, makes the joining of molecules together simple and efficient. Here again, two were entrepreneurs. Morten Meldal co-founded Betamab Therapeutics in 2019, and perhaps the most emblematic case is Carolyn Bertozzi, who, having served for some time on the scientific committees of pharmaceutical giants such as GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly, founded a host of startups that, for indicative purposes, are worth listing in full: Thios Pharmaceuticals (2001); Redwood Bioscience (2008), which was subsequently bought by Catalent Pharma Solutions (2014) though Bertozzi remains on its scientific committee; Enable Biosciences (2014); Palleon Pharma (2015); InterVenn Biosciences (2017) and finally OilLux Biosciences and Lycia Therapeutics (2019).

It is no coincidence that Bertozzi is the most entrepreneurial of this year’s prize-winners: her contribution was precisely to have found a way to apply ‘click chemistry’ to biological molecules. Over the last forty years, biology is the scientific field that has most fully embraced entrepreneurship precisely because it is directly connected with genetic engineering (note the industrial-technological term ‘engineering’). In his book Editing Humanity (2020), the founding editor of Nature Genetics Kevin Davies describes the discovery, patenting and subsequent exploitation of a new technique to cut and sew – to edit, essentially – the DNA of living organisms. The technique is known as CRISPR gene editing, an unwieldy acronym for ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’. Its pioneers, microbiologist Emanuelle Charpentier and biochemist Jennifer Doudna, developed the technique in 2012 (and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020). Shortly after, other scientists improved the procedure, unleashing a vast and ferocious legal battle over patents which still rages on a decade later.

In 2013, Charpentier founded her first biotechnology firm, and in 2014 her second, ERS Genomics. Doudna was even more enterprising: before even making the new technique public she founded Caribou Biosciences (2011); afterwards she jumped ship to found Editas Medicine (2013), the first publicly traded CRISPR company, which is funded by Bill Gates among others. She left when rivals managed to appropriate a substantial part of the patent, founding Intellia Technologies (2014) in response, then Mammoth Biosciences (2017). In his book, Kevin Davies outlines no less than forty startups connected in one way or another to the CRISPR procedure.

Evidently, the Nobel Prize acts as a seal of quality for venture capital, which then encourages the laureate to commercialize their innovation. For example, Eric Betzig won the prize for Chemistry in 2014 for his pioneering work on super-resolved microscopy and recently co-founded Eikon Therapeutics (2021), which seeks to apply the results of his research. But as we’ve seen from Doudna and the rest of this year’s medallists, not all researchers wait for the Nobel before launching their own startup. Take the German physicist Theodor Hänsch, who received the prize in 2005 for his work on the optical frequency comb technique in spectroscopy. Some three years prior Hansch co-founded the firm Menlo Systems, which used this method to manufacture products for the market. That is, if one estimates the future profitability of a discovery, it is simply financial foresight to launch one’s company while you wait for the Nobel stamp of approval.

A leader in a given field throwing themselves into commercial ventures and stock exchange listings then has knock-on effects, encouraging their disciples, assistants and students to do likewise. A cycle develops that favours academics who know how to attract funding and who therefore, even before becoming full-blown entrepreneurs, are already effective company managers, fostering those protégés and projects that tend towards commercialization. Already in 2006, a study by the Max Planck Society found that that one in four scientists who patent their results also establish their own business. The neoliberal character of this dynamic is hardly accidental: the explosion of biotech firms (which, along with IT companies, constitute the overwhelming majority of ‘scientific’ startups) coincided with the triumph of Reaganism.

In his classic study of the invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction, a procedure used for rapidly copying extracts of DNA) the anthropologist Paul Rabinow wrote that the year Reagan came to power:

the Supreme Court of the United States ruled by a vote of 5 to 4 that new life forms fell under the jurisdiction of federal patent law. Until the 1980s, patents had generally been granted only in applied domains… the Patent and Trademark Office had tended to restrict patents to operable inventions, not ideas… Finally, it was generally held that living organisms and cells were ‘products of nature’ and consequently not patentable. The requirement that patent protection be extended to the invention of ‘new forms’ did not seem to apply to organisms (plants excepted).

That same year, Congress passed the Patent and Trademark Amendment Act ‘to prompt efforts to develop a uniform policy that would encourage cooperative relationship between universities and industries, and ultimately take government-sponsored inventions off the shelf into the marketplace’. The result? From 1980 to 1984, during Reagan’s first term, ‘patent applications from universities in relevant human biological domains rose 300 per cent’. The patentability of genetic modification was clarified nine years ago:

On June 13th, 2013, in the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc., the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that human genes cannot be patented in the US because DNA is a ‘product of nature’. The Court decided that because nothing new is created when discovering a gene, there is no intellectual property to protect, so patents cannot be granted. Prior to this ruling, more than 4,300 human genes were patented. The Supreme Court’s decision invalidated those gene patents, making the genes accessible for research and for commercial genetic testing. The Supreme Court’s ruling did allow that DNA manipulated in a lab is eligible to be patented because DNA sequences altered by humans are not found in nature. The Court specifically mentioned the ability to patent a type of DNA known as complementary DNA (cDNA). This synthetic DNA is produced from the molecule that serves as the instructions for making proteins (called messenger RNA).

Now is not the time for a wider discussion of intellectual property (what would happen if mathematical theorems were patentable? To begin with, mathematicians would be pushed into concealing the proofs of a given theorem…but Occam’s razor forbids us to proceed in this direction). Nor of the concept of nature, which has been deformed by these legal rulings and the technical-industrial practice they have spawned. Instead, let us focus on the relationship between science and profit that we’ve so far been delineating.

One may assume that in the past, scientists were entirely disinterested, before being transformed into venal accumulators by the neoliberal revolution. Not quite. It is true that many have been motivated by a simple ‘love of science’ (I am thinking here for example of the physicist Paul Dirac or the mathematician Niels Henrik Abel), and that to act ‘in a scientific field is to be placed in conditions in which one has an interest in disinterest, in particular because lack of interest is rewarded’ (Bourdieu). But there were scientists in the past who gained a great deal from ‘pure science’. Without reaching for extreme cases such as the chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-73), immortalized for inventing the stock cube, or the physicist William Thompson (known as Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907), who amassed a great fortune thanks to his discoveries, the French biologist Louis Pasteur offers a good example.

Pasteur was always attentive to the agriculture and industrial dimensions of his research. He was the first to patent (among other things) the pasteurization of milk, then of wine and beer, and accumulated a fortune of one million francs by the time he died. In spite of this, however, Pasteur was celebrated as the purest of scientists, the disinterested scientist par excellence. What explains this? It should be noted that the notion of ‘pure science’ really takes hold in the second half of the nineteenth century. ‘Pure science’ is invoked by jurists, agronomists, philosophers of art, naturalists, chemists (the chemist Berthelot, speaking of the colours extracted from carbon, commented that ‘their discovery is the triumph of pure science’). As historian of science Guillaume Carnino writes,

If ‘pure science’ shows itself to be so transdisciplinary, it’s because it’s none other than the rhetorical expression of an aspiration that belongs to the academic world as a whole: the autonomy of research. But for the majority of scientists, the purity they ascribe to science does not contradict its very real entanglement in the market. Far from being devoid of any lucrative or moral intentions, the pure science of the 1860-80s allowed for the possibility of its application in industry… it’s not a question of counterposing disinterested science to applied science, but rather to demonstrate that the two proceed from the same logic, and that we must leave the field open to the most incongruous, academic and seemingly less ‘applicable’ of research projects in order to reap any economic benefits it might bring. The purer the science, the more profitable its outcome. The argument is astounding because it justifies the autonomy of the academy in the name of profit and material gain, and yet it’s effective and appears regularly in the writings of faculty members… Now, given that the condition for the existence of pure science is none other than disinterested research — the remuneration of scientists, that is, who dedicate themselves entirely to research they are passionate about — it’s suddenly convenient to preserve and foster, at any cost, that revered substance that seems to constitute the very spirit of the university. Put otherwise, the purity of science guarantees the interest that industrialists, governments and nations will find in it.

The problem of the neoliberal revolution is not, therefore, that scientists have become venal when once they were angelic. It is that while money was previously a side-effect of scientific inquiry, now it is its main purpose (grammatically speaking, scientist used to be the noun, entrepreneur the adjective; now it’s the opposite). And, typically, the moment scientists start profiting, they stop doing science.

The wildest example is that of the world-famous mathematician Jim Simons: his research into Riemannian topological varieties has found application in quantum physics, earning him numerous awards. In 1982, Simons used his mathematical research to develop an investment algorithm that exploited the inefficiencies of financial markets, and founded a hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies (its flagship fund is called Medallion, in sardonic reference to Simons’ various prizes). Simons has been referred to as ‘the world’s greatest investor’ and ‘the most successful fund manager of all time’. His personal fortune is estimated at around $25 billion. When he retired in 2010, his place was taken by Robert Mercer, an inveterate partisan of the far right, founder of Cambridge Analytica (renowned for its role in the Brexit campaign and Trump’s election) and a major funder of Breitbart News. In spite of some recent tax trouble with the IRS, Simons is still widely respected as a great philanthropist. If Marx coined the term ‘scientific socialism’, Simons can boast of having implemented scientific capitalism.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Michael Sprinker, ‘The Royal Road’, NLR I/191.