Thursday, 28 February 2008

Intellectual property and the heart of science

Last week at dinner I sat next to a lovely professor of a scientific discipline (who I will not name as I haven’t asked him if I can). Being my second-last day of work in my (then) job, the topic of conversation for much of the night was my PhD topic.

Knowledge ownership in the form of intellectual property is a common conversation anyway amongst the people I was at dinner with – academics, industry representatives, government officials in the field of animal production, economics, biosecurity and health. It is a particularly hot topic at the moment, since one of the Universities – and potentially the whole of the Group of Eight – is strongly asserting a right to own 100% of intellectual property regardless of who funded the research (see article in The Australian HES).

I am going to proclaim ignorance regarding the exact legal issues around this, though I would like to understand this aspect better. For now the issue if the grief of a (fairly commercial-minded) scientist who feels that this IP issue has undermined the entire purpose of scientific work.

It is easy to misunderstand this: we all know academics often – or even normally - pursue their research for altruistic reasons and commercialisation or other forms of knowledge commodification can seem to undermine or (paradoxically) devalue their work. That is not what is going on here.

This scientist (and others I spoke to that night and on other occasions) had for many years been working on scientific research funded by industry and government organizations. These organizations would own some of the IP of the research under a range of different models. Those organizations might be required to own IP under the rules that govern their existence - for example, if some research funding is government derived, there may be a requirement that the IP be returned to the government or the funded organization in return for funding or there might be an expectation of IP as a type of capital reported to the stakeholders whose fees are the main source of the organisation’s cash. For example, a livestock organization might wish to say “we spent $x on Y research which will increase productivity in this industry by x% ...” Naturally these stakeholders would expect that, having paid for this research, they would be able to use it - and possess some of the rights to it.

These organizations – or, often, a number of organizations and government departments all together – benefit from the research by increased agricultural productivity on (an often) national scale. The IP is valuable when the industry knows about it, when it implemented by lots of people (often including farmers) and increases economic performance on a large scale. This doesn’t benefit a few very specific people but, without wanting to sound too save-the-world about it, benefits everyone (economically speaking).

Benefits for the scientists are funding for their labs, publications, PhD students, postdoc positions which then feeds more research and more discovery that leads to more funding and so on. The story I hear from scientists and industry is that, in the scenario, everyone wins, and research for the public good gets into the right hands.

Similarly, universities are arguing public good in the rhetoric about IP ownership. A recent article in The Australian gave a compelling example – imagine funded research on the effects of smoking found that smoking causes cancer and the funding organization would not allow the researchers to publish it. This is clearly against the public good.

But is public good the real reason that Universities may now start to demand that funding bodies – including funding that may be government-derived – receive none of the IP from research?

What happens when a scientist is required to not even mention the outcomes of research to colleagues in industry organizations? What happens when the research can’t get into the hands of the people who could implement it and enhance productivity (or in some cases, frighteningly, public health).

Where is the value of their research now, when it sits only in the hands of scientists and is wilfully kept out of the hands of the people who will make it useful? It is enough, according to the professor I sat next to, to make a scientist feel there is no value to their work, that it is no longer worth doing. (It also puts at risk the sources of funding that make the research possible, but was an important, but less depressing concern).

The real question is this: is public good is the real reason the Group of Eight are pushing for 100% IP ownership and is this valid? It is certainly worth further investigation.

No comments: