In light of the question on vaccines and the subsequent citations, I wanted to recommend a report, written by Seth Shulman, back in 2002. It’s called “Trouble on the Endless Frontier: Science, Invention and the Erosion of the
Technological Commons.” It later evolved into this book “Owning the Future” (see https://www.amazon.com/Owning-Future-Staking-Knowledge-Frontier/dp/03958...). Anyway, in the introduction, Shulman makes a powerful point about the changing ecosystem of ideas,
ownership, and patents. This is likely old news to many in the policy innovation community, but it was quite illuminating to me when I started paying attention to these topics in the early 2000s. The relevant quote is below.
“For a number of reasons, the landscape of scientific research has changed significantly over the past few decades as industrialized nations shift toward a knowledge-based economy. From U.S. Supreme Court rulings to international trade negotiations, the United
States has led the rest of the world in moving swiftly to institutionalize the notion of knowledge as a commodity. Many of the key decisions that furthered this institutionalization have come about with little public debate and with remarkably little foresight
about their potential long-term consequences.
An oft-cited example from a previous, revered generation of scientists illustrates the virtual sea change that has occurred in our notions about ownership and proprietary claims in high-tech research. In 1954, when Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine, he never
for a moment considered the idea of pursuing individual ownership rights to the discovery. Nor did Salk imagine the idea of licensing the vaccine in an effort to personally control the direction of future research in the field. In fact, Salk’s funder, the
March of Dimes, prohibited patenting or the receipt of royalties on the results of its research projects.
When Edward R. Murrow, the renowned television commentator of the day, asked, “Who will control the new pharmaceutical?” Salk replied that, naturally, the discovery belonged to the public. “There is no
patent,” he said. “Could you patent the sun?” This story bears repeating for the contrast it offers to the contemporary research environment. In the 1990s, for example, a biochemist named Donald Young and his team at the University of Rochester conducted
pioneering work to help understand the Cox-2 enzyme. Unlike Salk, however, this team sought—and, in April 2000 won—a patent on their research. The result: a bitter, ongoing, multi-million dollar lawsuit involving Young, the University of Rochester, and two
pharmaceutical companies that have brought to market a new class of painkillers—the Cox-2 inhibitors—that block the action of this enzyme. Officials at the University of Rochester contend that Young’s seminal research should entitle them to billions of dollars
in royalties on any drugs relating to the Cox-2 enzyme that result during the patent’s 17-year term. When Gerald P. Dodson, a lawyer representing the University of Rochester, was interviewed by the press, he said the university was thrilled with the situation.
“Imagine waking up in the morning and having a patent on aspirin,” Dodson said. “Well, these people at Rochester woke up this morning and have a patent on a substitute for aspirin that is even better" (Shulman, 2002, pp. 5-6).
Stephen M. Fiore, Ph.D.
Director, Cognitive Sciences Laboratory, Institute for Simulation & Training (http://csl.ist.ucf.edu/)
University of Central Florida