Monday, January 31, 2005

The Endless Frontier©

There has been a lot of press recently on the effects of scientific patents on innovation - specifically, how they can hinder further development, and the dissemination of knowledge. Wired says the lines have been drawn between independent organizations like BIOS (Biological Innovation for Open Society), Open Source Biology, and more generally Science Commons, and big evil corporations like Monsanto (their example).

These organizations are not calling on Monsanto to give up all of their intellectual rights (which would be absurd), but rather to grant legal use of some of the tools and technologies they have developed to all other scientists to apply that knowledge to other problems. Large pharmaceutical companies cannot afford (in strictly bottom-line economic terms) to work on problems that only affect poor third-world nations. It's not that they (might) not care, it's that those countries don't have enough money to cover the companies R&D costs. Ford certainly researches which type and color of automobiles will sell best, their actions here are nothing different (with, of course, the exception that Pharma could work on these drugs for humanitarian reasons, but that's another post).

This is not (the only place) where the lines should be drawn, however. Business will continue to do business, however best suits business. Period. We should also focus some attention on what happens to scientific developments that are made in academic settings. Thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act universities can retain ownership of inventions. Sounds great, right? Here's some praise from this report from University of California Office of the President:
The Bayh-Dole Act and its subsequent amendments created incentives for the government, universities, and industry to work together in the commercialization of new technologies for the public benefit. The success of this three-way partnership cannot be understated.
Okay, let's review: Universities get grant money from government funding agencies (NIH, NSF, etc.) to pay for research activities. Lots of that money, in fact, ends up going to support the graduate (and undergraduate) students who typically perform the actual experiments. A discovery of some economic value is made. Who owns this invention? The taxpayers who supported these scientists? No. The university that was given the money retains the rights to commercialize the invention.

Why would the government do this?

Prior to this Act very few government patents (some of which came from academic institutions) were licensed for commercial use. Industry was not buying what the government was selling because they (the private sector) could not be guaranteed exclusive rights to sell a product based off of a patented innovation. This is called technology transfer, and there was very little of it going on, which slows down the effects of scientific innovation on the public's quality of life.

So how did the Bayh-Dole act fix this problem?

By allowing universities to create companies based on ideas developed with federal money. As of 1997, 2200 new companies have been formed based on intellectual developments made at an academic institution by researchers funded (in whole or in part) by federal funds. These companies together represent a $30 billion (yes, billion) per year economy and employ hundreds of thousands of people.

But this is not the way.

I don't believe that Vannevar Bush has this in mind when he wrote his seminal report, "Science - The Endless Frontier", to FDR in 1945. Vannevar realized the importance of supporting basic research at our nation's university in order to improve our economy and national defense. It is this coupling - cutting edge fundamental science with the education of the future stewards of the disciplines - that has led to America's scientific world domination since Sputnik.

How does commercialization interfere with this?

Imagine the following: As before, a marketable idea is generated in an academic research group. The idea is deemed patentable by the university lawyers so a company is founded to capitalize on this opportunity. The professor (also known as an advisor to his students) is typically involved in this company at some level. This is most certainly a non-zero time commitment, which means less time for teaching and advising his or her students. Consider what happens with that dual-CEO-professor is faced with a scientific problems. Is the commercial applicability of a scientific question considered before research time is invested? Are the people working in his or her labs considered students or employees? In this post-Bayh-Dole era, do we judge scientists by their contributions to our common body of knowledge, or by their contributions to their shareholders?

Suggested further reading:

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In Your Head

A real understanding of how our brains work stands as a frontier of science today. Even though we've sequenced the human genome in its entirety, understanding how we create thoughts, store memories, or experience music remains rudimentary at best. The tools necessary to study these processes are just now becoming sophisticated enough to begin tackling these important questions.

CNN recently covered a press release from the University of Oxford announcing the establishment of the Oxford Centre for Science of the Mind (OXCSOM).
A multidisciplinary research centre at the University of Oxford will examine all types of beliefs, from those that make children think their stockings are filled by Santa Claus to the faith that drives fundamentalist terrorism.
People from six different departments (Anatomy, Pharmacology, Philosophy, Physiology, Theology, and Ethics) will be a part of this virtual center (or centre), with an initial investment of $2 million by The John Templeton Foundation. These investigators, led by Baroness Susan Greenfield, will be looking for physiological differences in people of different faiths - their reactions to the pain of being burned by chili peppers, for example.

Maybe this is a global extension of Faith-Based Initiatives, but I don't think using religious faith as a variable leads to infallible conclusions, or, for that matter, results. If this is just a source of funding for the University of Oxford, then good for them, but maybe they actually want to associate rigorous scientific study of brain function with a foundation that funds spiritual research "including research in love, creativity, purpose, infinity, intelligence, thanksgiving and prayer."

The OXCSOM is not alone in the class of recently-founded-brain-research facilities. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute will open its first research facility to work in that field: Janelia Farm is set to open in 2006 (this was mentioned briefly in ACS's Chemistry and Engineering News here. Their Scientific Agenda, simply put, is to pursue tough problems which require long-term investigations (something actually rare in science today). They have identified two of these uberproblems so far:
The identification of general principles that govern how information is processed by neuronal circuits.
The development of imaging technologies and computational methods for image analysis.
In short, they aim to develop new tools in order to better understand what goes on in your head. That's how science works.

Note: If you're into brain science, then check out this article from Scientific American which BoingBoing covered. I also enjoyed Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain (

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


It's the first post on Occam's Blog. I feel like I should explain my mission here - why I'm doing this, what I hope to gain from the experience, and what I hope I can help you with.

First the selfish reasons:
  1. I do not have a lot of reasons to write in a non-scientific voice on a day-to-day basis. The writing that my work calls for is usually technical in nature and there are a whole separate set of rules for writing like that (e.g., passive voice is always preferred). This makes it more difficult for me when I am given or asked to write something in a different tone. Occam's Blog is an excuse for me to write.
  2. The scope of my scientific work is small. Most everyone's scope is small compared with the whole of scientific inquiry and I believe there are lessons to be learned in every field that can help me with my chosen field of study. I read lots of papers in my field of chemistry, but don't often have the time to drastically expand my scope. Occam's Blog is an excuse for me to read.
And now the unselfish reasons:

  1. Within the next decade you will be able to (free of charge) read any scientific journal you like online. Right now access is restricted to organizations (like universities) who can afford the expensive subscriptions. Sure you can go to your local college or universities library and probably get access, but judging by the attendance in science libraries in the last few years, you're not doing that. This kind of access is great, but these articles are not written to be readable by everyone. The niche between experts reading about cutting edge research in their field in journals and the general scientific community has been filled by magazines like Scientific American. There is a role for blogs to play here too.
  2. Wasn't #1 good enough?
So I've got my reasons to write; I hope I can provide reasons for you to read.