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:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might want to also check out the following article by Brian Coppola, Chemistry professor at the University of Michigan

3:44 PM  

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