Monday, November 30, 2009

National Parks Profit from a Neologism

Yellowstone's Emerald Pool
This article  in the Washington Examiner online, from an AP article by Mead Gruver describes a new policy put in place that allows "bioprospecting," which is defined as "the search for organisms that promise scientific breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry," as long as the park receives part of any commercial profit reaped--an unspecified amount.

Actually, the way I phrased it is not the way the article presents it--it's unclear as to whether "bioprospecting" was legal before this policy, but this policy makes it tacitly legal.

Here's the instigating factor for this policy--people have been making profits off of discoveries already:

In the mid-1980s, scientists discovered that a bacteria species from a Yellowstone hot spring could make DNA testing much more practical. Because of that Nobel Prize-winning research, DNA testing has since become commonplace — an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The National Park Service hasn't directly shared in those profits even though the bacteria species, Thermus aquaticus, arguably belonged the American public.
If Ken Burns hasn't turned your mind to patriotic mush, you probably know that "public land" is not yours.  The "public ownership" of National Parks is an ideal--a good one, but you know you can't chop down a redwood tree and use it to build your own cedar cabin in Yosemite Valley.  Just like you can't borrow police cars whenever you want, even though they are "public property." So where is the money going to go? Into the National Park system, which sounds good. Maybe. Well, unsure.  This part of a larger issue: What are National Parks For?

But I'm getting sidelined from the point at hand, which is that there is already an uncomfortable relationship between science and commerce, and people are very skeptical that science--medical and pharmaceutical--has our best interest at heart, rather, it serves our best interest on the way to our wallet (if you're pessimistic).  Involving the National Park as a business partner in profit made off of scientific discovery is a bad move.  What if, further down the line, profit depends on the exploitation of a natural resource--which it so often does?  Will you give one Yellowstone thermal bacteria pool to save two Zion Canyons?  There's a reason we try to separate public agencies from commercial/corporate interests.  Even though this policy doesn't really seem like a big deal, it's a bad precedent.

The counter to this argument is that scientific research does, in fact, benefit humanity, and it should be encouraged.  Although, I'm not sure how splitting the profits this way either encourages or discourages the research.  The article quotes Yellowstone spokesperson Al Nash who says two seemingly contradictory things: that the Park Service is not looking for new revenue for "filling potholes," and that "this is about the public, which owns places like Yellowstone, getting some kind of benefit if someone has a commercial product based on research which started in the park." But the public pays for the National Parks through tax dollars and donations, which is part of what makes it "ours." And we already benefit--at least, in theory.  (In reality, the RV'd elderly seem to benefit the most, but whatever.)

In this case, the word "prospecting" is ominous, when you consider that the history of the West is the exploitation of mineral resources by large corporate ("company") interests.  And the history of conservation has often been the fight to wrest the land out of the hands of these private and commercial interests.

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