Let scientists be scientists

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

Thomas Edison experimenting in his laboratory c1920. Photograph from the US Library of Congress collection.

The job of the scientist is, first and foremost, to pursue science, not funding. Larry Marshall, the newly appointed head of CSIRO, may have started out in science, but you know he’s spent too many years in business when – in his first official communiqué – he claims that scientists have a ‘duty’ to start companies.

It would be too easy to simply list all of the lovely technologies and life-changing medical advancements basic research has given us, and ask, ‘Would you have liked to have gone without all of these?’

Instead, let’s acknowledge that industry can help fund some basic research, however an overemphasis on the commercialisation of research outcomes is fundamentally opposite to the nature and philosophy of science as a human endeavour.

Imagine a young research student in 1960s Japan. The lab head they are currently working for has assigned them the task of studying small, nocturnal jellyfish. When the jellyfish die and are crushed, they glow when exposed to water. It seems strange, perhaps even interesting, but could anyone have at that time reasonably predicted that the work of this research student would end up earning them a Nobel Prize? Osamu Shimomura, the student who did that work, could hardly have guessed so.

Shimomura helped discover aequorin and green fluorescent protein, which are what made the jellyfish he was studying glow. Isolating the genetic codes for these proteins has led to their widespread use in research, giving medical researchers the ability to observe biological activity at the molecular level and allowing engineers to develop advanced biosensors, among other things.

If Shimomura had a duty to start a company, how could he have sold his jellyfish experiment to a venture capitalist?

S: I want to study these glowing jellyfish. They’re really cool.
VC: What will you discover? How much money can we make from your discovery?
S: I don’t know.

And Shimomura can’t know, nor can anyone! That’s the fundamental nature of basic research and of science generally: to discover what we don’t yet know. Sure, we can sometimes reasonably guess, but we’re only guessing and we can barely do that in most instances of basic research, such as in Shimomura’s case.

Shimomura wouldn’t have been able to get his experiments off the ground if he was told he had a duty to make the outcomes of his experiments commercialisable. He’d have to do something completely different, and ultimately something that wasn’t basic research.

Since this problem of the unknown is common for almost all of basic research, the claim that scientists ought to start companies is essentially to say that they shouldn’t pursue basic research. Do we really wish for this? If we do, the ultimate goal and purpose of science is lost to an impatient sense of utility.

I say ‘impatient sense’ because basic research forms the foundation on which all utilisations of science rely upon. Those biosensors and the incredible detail of information which medical researchers have used to develop new treatments for disease are all – in part – courtesy to a research student in 1960s Japan methodically studying some obscure, nocturnal jellyfish.

The death of Martin Burgess

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke's euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Nembutal and part of Philip Nitschke’s euthanasia administration machine. Photographer: Mads Bødker.

Earlier this year, Martin Burgess, a terminally ill man in Darwin, died after requesting assistance to die. An anonymous donor had allegedly sent Mr Burgess a lethal dose of the drug Nembutal prior to his death.

Nearly 20 years ago, Mr Burgess wouldn’t have had to make his final days so controversial, public, or legally risky for him and others.

Bob Dent was in a similar position in July of 1996. He was suffering unbearably, unjustly, and had terminal cancer.

‘If I were to keep a pet animal in the same condition I am in, I would be prosecuted. If you disagree with voluntary euthanasia, then don’t use it, but don’t deny the right to me to use it,’ he stated in a public letter, days before his death. (He was so unwell at the time, that he could not physically write – his wife took dictation.)

The legislation that made it possible for Mr Dent to die with legal medical assistance was the first of its kind in the world when it was passed in 1995 by the Northern Territory’s Parliament. Not long after, however, federal conservatives overturned the Territory’s Rights of the Terminally Ill Act. Current social services minister Kevin Andrews, then a backbencher, drew up the federal bill that made this possible in 1996. To this day, no territory of Australia – the Northern Territory, the Australian Capital Territory, or Norfolk Island – may legalise euthanasia via an process, even a democratic one such as what happened in the Northern Territory. The states, which have more powers, were and are unaffected.

Since 1995, a total of 29 voluntary euthanasia legalisation bills have been presented to parliaments in Australia. Queensland is the only state that has not yet seen such a bill presented.

Despite the numerous opportunities for legislators to legalise what has overwhelming public support, politicians have either lived in a different world or in fear of losing support from social, especially religious, conservatives. This reckless political failure is paved in the blood and tears of people who have needlessly suffered and endured long, painful deaths.

It has also forced conscientious and empathetic medical doctors to risk criminal charges in the course of their duty to care for the most vulnerable in our population – the sick and the elderly.

Australia was once at the forefront of voluntary euthanasia legislation, in legislation which sought to avoid needless suffering and offer humane, dignified deaths to those who wanted them. How is it that we have let almost 20 years go by and we are still no closer to permanently stopping this sadism which is too-often dressed in anachronistic religious babble? Does being unable to defecate, communicate, shower, or even stand up without assistance while you writhe in constant pain sound like a existence which has so much so-called ‘sanctity’ that you or I should be forced to live it for the rest of our days if would prefer not to? Not to me, it doesn’t. If it does to you, then I ask the ancient question: by what right?