Tying up Science

Are intellectual property protections slowing progress?

Ted Agres
Jan 1, 2006

Intellectual property is arguably the lifeblood of discovery. But as academic scientists increasingly accept industry funding and engage in commercial activities such as patenting, the concern is that biomedical research will suffer as rights holders refuse to share their materials and information. Patents, however, may not be the issue, according to two recent surveys and a new report by the National Academy of Sciences.1

"The problem is not patents per se," says John P. Walsh, associate professor of sociology at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "It's a combination of scientific competition, wanting to publish first, and commercial interests more broadly." Additionally, he points out, many academic scientists tend to largely ignore patents anyway.

<figcaption> Credit: Getty Images</figcaption>
Credit: Getty Images

In a survey of biomedical researchers conducted in late 2004, Walsh and colleagues found that only 5% of academic bench scientists regularly check for patents on work related to their research. More often, difficulties...


1. J.P. Walsh et al., "View from the bench: patents and material transfers," Science, 309: 2002-3, Sept. 23, 2005. 2. S. Hansen et al., "Intellectual Property in the AAAS Scientific Community: A descriptive analysis of the results of a pilot survey on the effects of patenting on science," American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC, Oct. 20, 2005. 3. "Reaping the benefits of genomic and proteomic research: intellectual property rights, innovation, and public health," Committee on Intellectual Property Rights in Genomic and Protein Research and Innovation, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 2006. 4. J. Madey v. Duke University, US Federal Court of Appeals, Oct. 3, 2002; www.ll.georgetown.edu/federal/judicial/fed/opinions/01opinions/01-1567.html