Public Domain Human Genome Project Generated More Research And More Commercial Activity Than Proprietary Competitor

from the not-bad dept

Traditionally, there has been a blithe assumption that more innovation occurs when patents are granted than when they are not. But as Techdirt has reported, people are finally beginning to call that into question. A forthcoming paper from an economist at MIT, Heidi Williams, provides another example of where that is not the case: in the field of genomics (via @gsDetermination).

Williams has looked at the academic papers that flowed from two major competing projects: the global Human Genome Project (HGP), which placed all its result in the public domain, and Craig Venter’s company Celera, which sought to patent as much as it could of the sequences that it obtained. Here’s how National Journal’s Brian Fung describes her results:

Using a standard measure of academic-knowledge production, she compared the number of papers published using HGP data and Celera data. By 2009, genes that had been sequenced in 2001 from HGP had produced an average of 2.1 academic papers a year, while genes sequenced that same year by Celera led to just 1.2 papers a year over the next eight years. Even though the annual pace of Celera-linked papers rose rapidly after its IP was lifted in 2003, it never caught up to the rate of publication tied to the always-open non-Celera data.

And if you’re worried that this is just one, possibly imperfect measure of innovation, Williams also looked at the number of diagnostic tests developed for both sets of genes. The result was the same: that tests based on the public genome’s sequences were twice as common as those based on Celera’s patented genes.

She concludes:

If Celera genes had counterfactually had the same rate of subsequent innovation as non-Celera genes, there would have been 1,400 additional publications between 2001 and 2009 and 40 additional diagnostic tests as of 2009

Remarkably, it’s not only academically that the Human Genome Project has proved its worth. According to estimates found in a report published in 2011:

between 1988 and 2010, federal investment in genomic research generated an economic impact of $796 billion, which is impressive considering that Human Genome Project (HGP) spending between 1990-2003 amounted to $3.8 billion. This figure equates to a return on investment (ROI) of 141:1 (that is, every $1 invested by the U.S. government generated $141 in economic activity).

(But note that more recent calculations have put the ROI nearer to 60:1 — lower, but still an impressive figure.)

In other words, as well as growing the store of human knowledge more effectively, publicly-funded research that does not seek patents on its work can provide taxpayers with big economic paybacks, too — something worth remembering at a time when researchers are under increasing pressure to patent everything they can.

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Comments on “Public Domain Human Genome Project Generated More Research And More Commercial Activity Than Proprietary Competitor”

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Anonymous Coward says:

minor quibble: the innovation patents are supposed to encourage is the original innovation (in this case the sequencing of the human genome) not follow-on innovations. The original idea was that by being able to profit from their innovation, inventors would be encouraged to try to invent new things. (incidentally, there has also been mention of moral rights- the moral rights argument boils down to it being unfair that B can profit from invention I when it was inventor A who first came up with it. Independent Invention is all well and fine, but there is the issue of proof. who should have the burden of proof? (I would guess the person claiming independent invention- it’s similar to Fair Use in that respect)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You have everything backwards. IP law is a moral wrong. No one has a moral ‘right’ to IP protections anymore than they have a moral ‘right’ to receive free money from the government. No one is morally obligated to receive anything, including monopoly privileges, from the government. As a result it is always those who want IP privileges that should carry the burden. It is their burden to prove that such privileges promote the progress. In the case of independent inventions an independent invention would suggest the idea is obvious enough for someone else to come up with it and so the monopoly would not promote the progress.

Also why should an independent inventor be any less morally entitled to a monopoly privilege? and we’re not interested in your stupid guesses. Laws shouldn’t be based on the guesses of a retarded idiot like yourself.

But posts like yours are the largest reason I want IP law abolished. No one is morally obligated to a monopoly privilege. The claim that IP laws should at all be influenced by such alleged obligations and not solely on public benefit is arguably the biggest reason I want IP laws abolished.

special-interesting (profile) says:

A nice report on open sourced genetic research economic benefits with convincing supporting data. In general its a great example of data sharing openness. Good news for a culture based on more sharing of ideas. Compared to the firewall of senseless applications of patent law slowing innovation and new tech. Now if only legislators looked at results and not the campaign contributions from industry special interest groups.

In this new age where the new areas of research are so broad that they are not covered by patent law its technological suicide for any nation that slows down due to corporate greed. Allowing genes to be patented during a time when we don’t even really know what we are talking about is beyond stupid. Its an infant technology where we still don’t know what the majority of genes do and especially the long term consequences of modifying them.

Software patents are similar idiocy. In such an fledgling industry growth is stunted by ridiculous patents issued on simple buttons. (one click to buy) This type of patent abuse should be legislated into oblivion until the technology matures. It will likely take a (conservative) few hundred years to do this if comparing it to mechanical innovation and technology 3000 year development rate. (historically speaking)

Its becoming a given that if we want to succeed by technological means and innovation there has to be an open data and reduced patent approach. It wont happen any other way. Without the average citizen being included by policy and law into the group of potential innovators we loose a large part of the huge base of intelligence derived from a culture of invention.


The Human Genome Project (HGP) is a model good investment and resulting success. What was so very impressive was the ROI figure of (at least) 60 to 1. We are talking NASA space program comparable returns on investment (ROI) which is what one expects of a good investment of tax dollars.

The returns from the HGP cannot be valued only in dollars. The value of accurate genetic tests and the exact identify diseases through DNA testing have begun a revolution of medical technology that no superlative can express it.

To even surpass the above superlatives DNA based treatments to exactly target the previously exactly identified disease is even more astoundingly amazing. Now consider the insanity of slowing such research down with patent prohibitions.

The argument that open sourced research provides a better ROI than a proprietary method is compelling. However its likely that the officially published figures are skewed in the classic way corporations overestimate their benefits and the oppositely classic way open sourced projects underestimate their contributions.

Since Celera is a private concern its natural to challenge the ROI figures for the obvious reasons that pressure to show results often produce misleading numbers. They should consider themselves lucky that they aren’t viewed to be as bad as the MPAA or RIAA or any associations using Hollywood accounting principles.

On the other hand (this is not a compliment) considering what firms like Celera spend on special interest lobbying its amazing that they show a profit at all. Any profit is more likely due to the fact that DNA research is so important rather than some proprietary attitude.

Most open sourced estimates are low and consecutive in comparison. If only because a lot of it is off the records and not officially reported as a category in general accounting methods.

Its even likely that firms using Celera data also benefited highly from the open sourced community. For reasons of corporate pride they will not likely admit that any investment (in Celera data) would prove a mistake and would most probably under report such gain.

In short. If a nation wants to hobble its culture of innovation through new technology… chain it to a patent system. It wont go anywhere. At least until the patent expires!

(Note; This compares directly to the loss of culture from eternal copyright also.)

out_of_the_blue says:

"provide taxpayers with big economic paybacks"?

Where exactly are taxpayers getting money back into their pockets? That’s just flat mis-stated. Economic activity in itself isn’t a payback, nor necessarily good — it could mean for instance, this drives more needless testing done by hospitals — and most likely goes straight into corporate hands. But there’s defnitely NO “payback” to taxpayers from these handouts to corporations and “scientists” with political connections, it’s just graft.

This isn’t solid infrastructure that everyone can immediately use, it’s the new form of fascism for techno-corps: public investments that result in private profits.

Here’s an example of how gov’t investment goes wrong:

How much will Google pay to bring fiber to Provo, Utah? Try $1 — Not a bad price for a $39m network build-out

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Last I checked government investments are usually done to benefit the public, but just get their money back. The public got the open data from the project which they can then use without paying a fee or license. Also, I don’t think the data or theinvestment drives the testing, I think that would be up to the hospitals, doctors, and what sort of diseases can be tested for as a result.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: "provide taxpayers with big economic paybacks"?

So far what I see that happens in open, public research project is that they tend to be more scrutinized. The needless testing you refer to can be important to consolidate the data and give it more reliability.

While you do have a point that some of this money incentives may go to said scientists the simple fact that the research is open invalidate any attempt at hijacking or pulling the entire thing towards a biased goal where said scientists and political forces would be interested whereas if it was done behind the patent/copyright lock it would be much harder to tell such a thing is happening.

As for Google fiber why would Google have to pay to bring fiber to any place? In fact why would any company pay to bring benefit to any place? The taxes will be paid by the advertising revenue. U mad, bro?

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