Thursday, October 29, 2009

Doing Philosophy in Public

Lately, I feel that the ivory tower is crumbling. Or at least it is developing some stress fractures. This is a good thing. For too long, the academic world and the real world have been at odds. Academics, intent on fulfilling the career goals, and standardized path of academic achievement, have helped to perpetuate the lay-public's view that academics are isolated, uninvolved, and mostly irrelevant. Academic disputes might be heated, emotionally charged, and the may make or break academic careers, but rarely do these disputes matter to the world at large. As the link above notes, Henry Kissinger correctly noted that the bitterness of academic disputes "is in inverse proportion to the importance of the subject." Indeed, among academics the currency of the trade has often been to find an opponent, attack, and if possible, destroy. But does any of this intellectual parrying matter to anyone, and must this be the future model of the academy -- to provide a sort of Punch and Judy show as occasional tidbits to a bemused public already wary of the goings-on in university halls? Simply put, no. It doesn't need to be like that.

Sometimes, we can step outside this model, seek not only positive collaborations between the academy and the "real" world, but also work to make ourselves relevant to the public in broader ways. This is part of the virtue of applied ethics, and one reason I have been thrilled to be at TU Delft. Here, engagement in the world is part of the goal. Applied ethics means nothing without a world to apply it to, and projects and researchers working on applied ethics in the Dutch technical universities are not only training engineers to think ethically, but also engaged in projects involving policies affecting hundreds of thousands of people. This is as it should be. Never before have I felt more at home in striving for public policy changes based upon my research. Where once my goals to take my research and do something with it might have been met with scorn by entrenched academic establishments, I am now encouraged by an atmosphere that accepts and even embraces the next logical step: change.

Three years ago, when I began to approach the issue of gene patenting, it was more or less just an academic question to me. Yes I felt viscerally that this was an important issue, but I never realized the extent to which it impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world (if not more), or the extent to which others were moved to finally act on the issue. When, two months after my book came out, the ACLU sued Myriad on this very issue, and now with the US dept of Health and Human Services making some progress in suggesting significantly altering gene patenting, I can see that applied ethics must naturally reach out as an academic field into the real world of activism.

I had the great fortune last week to be where the rubber meets the road on this issue, in what could legitimately be called "gene patent week" in New York City. There, I met with the attorneys for the ACLU, as well as a patent attorney who has been a harsh critic of my work, calling me, the ACLU, and other opponents of gene patenting "liars"(though, even now, he admits not having read my book). I met with Luigi Palombi, whose book Gene Cartels came out just recently, and does for the legal case against gene patents what mine does for the ethical case. I met the director of the film "In The Family," Joanna Rudnick, who possesses the BRCA1 mutation that makes her susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and who discovered in documenting her experiences that the patent that Myriad Genetics owns for that gene prevents her and many others from accessing information about their own bodies, from getting second opinions about her tests, and for many women, the prohibitive price of the test prevents even getting the test done in the first place. I met clinicians and researchers, like Debra Leonard and Ellen Matloff, each of whom has personal experience with how gene patents prevent doctors, researchers, and patients from getting access to information that is not only vitally needed, but part of nature, a natural law, and thus not properly owned. I met with Tania Simoncelli and Sandra Park, of the ACLU, who have striven each in her own way to actually end the process of gene patenting. Tania's background is in science, and she has fought for years to get a suit started, and Sandra is an attorney who is fighting valiantly in the courts. I met Dan Ravicher and Chris Hansen, of the Public Patent Foundation and the ACLU, each of whom has staked his organization's reputations on bringing this courageous and necessary suit.

These people humbled me. What began for me as an academic issue is now personal, and a matter of activism. This is not academia, and the rhetoric around the edges of the debate, the name calling, insinuation, and arguing about the meanings of terms and legal rulings must be put into perspective. People are being hurt, and these harms are not academic. They are wrong. Public policy must change. Never before has it been clearer to me that this is not just an issue for debate, but the cusp of something big.

I had the great fortune to meet and interview James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and I asked him about gene patenting. He opposes it, and he says his opposition was why he was "fired" from the Human Genome Project. He stated in our 45 minute on-camera interview that "something has to give" and that gene patenting cannot continue. It is harming too many people. I value his judgment as a scientist, and his concern as a person came through when he expressed his disdain for the costs associated with a non-inventive test that has been given an exclusive monopoly through patent.

I particularly value the energy, commitment, and involvement of academics, lawyers, clinicians, and counselors -- all those named above and many more unmentioned, who have moved beyond the academic issues involved and sought to change the world because they know that their cause is just. They have staked their reputations, their careers, money, relationships, and futures on pursuing this change, and their commitment should embolden us all. It gives me strength, and makes me thankful that here, applied philosophy means involvement in the world, unashamedly pursuing the good, and making philosophy relevant once again.


Lex said...

This is a very powerful statement, David, and dead on. There will be well-meaning people on the other side, but what you and others have done is to plumb these issues to their depths so that their approaches can no longer be hidden behind Jesuitical apologies. When the "collateral" damage exceeds the wildest definitions for success, the game must end. Thanks for clarifying where the justice is. (Now talk to those ACLU lawyers about "free speech" for corporate giants)

drkoepsell said...

Thanks again, Lex. It is gratifying to see people actively pursuing change, and to assist in any small way I can, even if it's just to educate and bring some attention to the issue. And yes, the whole corporate personhood issue must get re-assessed at some point.