- Gene Jockeys: Life Science and the Rise of Biotech Enterprise by Nicolas Rasmussen
There has been surprisingly little research on the deep historical transformation of the relationships among science, medicine, and society—usually called the “biotech revolution.” Anecdotal stories of academic molecular biologists turned multimillionaires abound, but a scholarly account of these “gene jockeys” in the context of the Cold War, the academic culture of the 1970s, and the changing economy of the time has been missing. This is what historian of science and medicine Nicholas Rasmussen has provided. For anyone interested in the biotech revolution and what it meant for academia, business, and medicine, Gene Jockeys is the place to start.
Rasmussen follows closely the race to isolate (“clone”) five human genes, produce the proteins they specified (insulin, human growth hormone, interferon, erythropoietin, plasminogen activator), run clinical trials, gain FDA approval, market the new drugs, and fight off litigation from competitors. The research took place in the 1970s and 1980s, in academic laboratories and in biotech companies newly founded by academic scientists. In a winner-take-all atmosphere, research was intensely competitive in both settings. Scientists stormed each other’s freezers to steal valuable material, wrote patent applications on Christmas Eve, and sued each other to slow down rival research. The story reads like a frantic detective novel, although a sad one for those who imagined that scientific research was ruled by Mertonian norms and a communitarian ethos.
Using rich historical sources from incessant litigation over patents, Rasmussen articulates a new understanding of the norms and values of biotech research and how they differed (or not) from the world of academic research and makes a number of important and original arguments.
What difference did it make to the ambitious postdocs who left academia for these new biotech companies that their salaries were now paid by hopeful venture capitalists rather than by taxpayers? This line of interrogation echoes the “Forman-Kevles debate” about whether the physicists who funded their academic research through military contracts during the Cold War were able to retain their intellectual autonomy. Rasmussen is very clear about his answer regarding the early days of biotech: it was the scientists who set the research agendas, not their marketing colleagues. And unlike physicists, molecular biologists did not need to pretend they were interested only in pure science while developing gadgets for the military.
In setting the stage for his narrative, Rasmussen argues that molecular biology was a Cold War science, not because of its marginal contribution to biological warfare, but because it was “an icon of a fundamental science showcasing the free thought that only the Free World supposedly offered.” (p. 27). Leftist critics of science, as well as researchers attached to traditional academic values, argued that those who crossed the imaginary line between academia and business could be motivated by money only. Not so, argues Rasmussen; their motivation was primarily scientific. Biotech companies offered excellent conditions to carry out [End Page 185] cutting edge research, often better than in academia. Furthermore, the prospects of making money were so remote that the scientists could only be in for the intellectual rewards. True, some of the founders might have thought about getting rich, but they were simultaneously after the Nasdaq and the Nobel—and they often got both.
For the first decade of biotech, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, these two strategies seemed perfectly compatible, although at a significant price to the taxpayer and the consumer. The biotech drugs were important for some patients, but most of the biotech companies’ revenues came from off-label prescriptions of often dubious medical value. Also, the competition between many companies and the hurdles set by broad patent protection (for hardly original methods) led to duplication of research, in academia and industry. Thus, Rasmussen argues, as a new mode of therapeutic innovation, the biotech revolution was not revolutionary at all, in that it did not bring a novel and efficient solution to the problem of bringing basic...