On the Cutting Edge


THEY DEDICATED the University's new biochemistry laboratory last week, and all the big science gun showed up. With a half-dozen congratulatory speeches followed by a wine-and-cheese bash, the ceremony was no less than festive. Research assistants clad in white gowns and wide-eyed pre-meds happily crowded into the back of the new building's sparkling lecture hall, competing to see how many Nobel Laureates they could spot. (The winner found four). Closer to the front of the room professors loudly congratulated one another, relieved that after 14 years of waiting, Harvard's Biochemistry Department finally had a place of its own.

Behind the scenes, less cheery sentiments lurked. Just two days before the dedication, the Faculty Council had approved tough new guidelines restricting full-time professors' activities outside the College. Concerned about conflicts of interest and "conflicts of commitment"--Faculty-ese for situations in which outside involvements gobble up a professor's time at the University--the council decided to require professors with any "potentially serious" conflicts to disclose them to a new standing committee. No longer will professors decide for themselves whether to tell Dean Rosovsky of potential conflicts--a system that has produced no disclosures in the past eight years. Now, finally, the University means business.

Though they focused on more pleasant issues at last week's ceremony, the conflict rules inevitably crept into conversation. Early in the proceedings, Rosovsky had tacitly acknowledged that some faculty members were grumbling, as he turned his congratulatory message into a mini-lecture on "the primacy of University obligations." Professors, he stressed, should see the new building not as a gift from the University, but as "a trust."

Keynote speaker James D. Watson, director of Harvard's Cold Spring laboratories, ended the faculty members' public silence on the new guidelines. As the granddad of the DNA revolution, Watson enjoys a lot of respect; perhaps he alone had the status to voice what others were feeling. And towards the end of an otherwise dry sketch of early DNA research at Harvard, Watson decided to use that leverage.

The University, he argued, "is unduly upset as to whether DNA is dangerous or if some people should make money from DNA." By tightening conflicts-of-interest guidelines, Harvard is "trying regulate something that can't be regulated," he added, concluding his digression with an admonition to University policymakers: "If you try and codify [the behavior of faculty members], all you'll do is possibly get rid of your best."


THE ATTITUDES of scholars like Watson will ultimately determine the effectiveness of the University's guidelines. The new rules are tough and well-intended; they will work only if faculty members agree to disclose information on their own "extramural activities."

Eager as the council is to crack down on excessive outside work--as it should, in the interests of students who pay $10,000 to see top professors in action--its members realize they can not empower officials to pry into professors' personal schedules. That realization poses a dilemma, though. As several professors have noted, the very handful of people the new guidelines are aimed at are the ones least likely to disclose the full extent of their outside involvement.

It's very hard to blame them. Professors who feel they're contributing to scientific progress while making a buck don't like to be told they should stick to University activities. After all, private industry does boast far more advanced equipment than even the richest of universites. The notion of universities spearheading the quest for scientific advance is romantic, but it simply doesn't always happen that way. The 5 per cent of faculty members who choose not to disclose their outside lives--one expert's educated guess of the rate of noncompliance--may just be the ones who forge a new understanding of issues in not only genetics, but cancer research and the other areas that challenge America's scientists today.

In devising the conflict-of-interest guidelines that it did, then, the Faculty Council had to sail through a very narrow channel. On one side lay the Scylla of lax control over professors which could involve the University in sticky financial conflicts or lure faculty from their teaching commitments; on the other rested the Charybdis of strictures rigid enough to drive away top-notch professors. Whether the council succeeded may not be evident for years, when the commitments that Harvard's faculty make in the next year or so begin to surface. And as Watson suggested, the University may never learn how many potential faculty its tough rules dissuade from coming here.

Professors in the social sciences, where outside consulting work may be less frequent and is almost always less lucrative, tend to argue that the council's new guidelines will succeed. Only at the margin, they say, will the new codes dissuade professors from undertaking new outside responsibilities--probably exactly the ones the guidelines aim at curbing. But in the hard sciences, as Watson's remarks at last week's dedication suggested, the outlook is less sanguine, perhaps because the financial temptations for faculty members there are so great.

WHILE MANY of those same science professors who may now face hard career choices filed into last week's ceremony, several graduate students stood outside. To most who attended, they handed a "Bio-Buck"--a facsimile of a dollar bill decorated by caricatures of three Harvard scientists known for their lucrative outside work. Surrounding the sketches was the bill's motto: "Hell, I'd clone my grandmother to make a buck."

Few professors here would take that step, no matter what the guidelines. But if science faculty prove willing to sacrifice their University ties--either to pad their bank accounts or to gain uninhibited freedom to research outside a suddenly-restrictive university--then last week's change of direction could prove dangerous.

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