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Commercial Intervention Imperils Scientific Process

Column by Daniel Stevenson
Columnist

When the divergent worlds of commerce and science mix, the outcome can be a stunning success or a miserable sham. Examples of the former include the Media Laboratory, where the corporate world provides funding for a state-of-the-art research lab, and industrial laboratories like the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center or AT&T Bell Laboratories. But sometimes the corporate environment's meddling proves to be disastrous and counter-productive to the advancement of science, as in the much publicized Biosphere II project. In this period of rethinking the role of science in society, we must take care to ensure the survival of the scientific process amid commercially driven politics.

The Biosphere II project involved the creation of a 3.1 acre self-sustaining environment for eight humans in a compound representing the various ecospheres of the Earth, the original biosphere. The project was funded by a private consortium called Space Biosphere Ventures. The initial phase, which lasted for two years, ended on Sept. 26 with the eight team members emerging from seclusion.

At its conception, the project had noble intentions. Possible uses of the technological developments were widespread, from planning space colonies to optimizing the use of natural resources and improving recycling. Of particular emphasis at the beginning of the project was the goal of creating a wholly self-reliant, self-contained large scale ecosystem. Even if the experiment had failed it still would have provided valuable data.

The project's noble image began to sour when allegations arose over tampering with the ecosystem. Project managers initially refused to comment, and later admitted to smuggling in supplies and oxygen. One human subject had to receive medical treatment outside of the project. With controversy growing about the program's scientific validity, the panel of scientists monitoring the program resigned as a group last January. Amid sales of T-shirts and guided tours, it became increasingly obvious that the scientific process was being re-routed for corporate gains. The ecological and environmental goals of the project, potentially invaluable to the scientific world, were pushed to the back burner as commercial interests took precedent.

Now that the experiment is officially over, project managers are touting the important observations made about long-term human behavioral dynamics in an enclosed environment, while ignoring the fact that the original scientific goals were sidestepped. Regardless of any human behavior observations, the problems of quarreling and the doubtlessly useful question of the notorious "banana thief" should not be considered more important than the initial ecological goals. Human behavior could have easily been observed in an experiment without a multi-million dollar compound of ecosystems. Priorities were reshuffled according to the results of the experiment, breaking a cardinal rule of the necessarily impartial scientific process.

As government funding for science decreases in tight economic times, scientists must look for new sources to pay for research. Corporate America has always been ready to fund scientific development, but special care should be taken to avoid fiascoes like Biosphere II and to promote the healthy interaction of the realms of business and science.