Which Would You Rather Have: The Planet, Or A Patent?

from the decisions,-decisions dept

One of the more controversial approaches to the already controversial field of climate change is geoengineering, which Wikipedia defines as "deliberate large-scale engineering and manipulation of the planetary environment to combat or counteract anthropogenic changes in atmospheric chemistry."

Some people are concerned that such large-scale interventions might produce large-scale disasters. That makes small-scale experiments exploring the underlying technologies an important first step before taking this route. Unfortunately, it seems that one geoengineering experiment has been called off because of patents:

A field trial for a novel UK geoengineering experiment has been cancelled amid questions about a pre-existing patent application for some of the technology involved.

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project is a collaboration among several UK universities and Cambridge-based Marshall Aerospace to investigate the possibility of spraying particles into the stratosphere to mitigate global warming. Such particles could mimic the cooling produced by large volcanic eruptions, by reflecting sunlight before it reaches Earth’s surface.
As the article quoted above goes on to explain, the main issue here is a potential conflict of interests:
a patent application that was submitted by Peter Davidson, who runs the UK consulting firm Davidson Technology on the Isle of Man and was an adviser at the workshop that gave rise to the SPICE project, and Hugh Hunt, an engineer at the University of Cambridge, UK, who is one of the SPICE project investigators. The patent is for an "apparatus for transporting and dispersing solid particles into the Earth’s stratosphere" by "balloon, dirigible or airship" technology related to the SPICE field trial.
UK funding bodies require possible conflicts of interest to be declared when applying for grants, whereas here the patent application apparently only came to light a year into the experiment. Part of the project is continuing -- things like climate modelling and analysis -- but the most innovative element, the field trial, has been cancelled.

This episode shows one of the problems with trying to marry "pure" science with commerce, and the tensions that can arise between sharing knowledge freely and trying to make money by restricting access through licensing. It would be regrettable, to say the least, if the exploration of ideas that might play a role in addressing climate change were blocked because of patents.

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  1. icon
    A Guy (profile), 24 May 2012 @ 7:53am

    First, there are significant potential drawbacks to the experiment being proposed. At best, it would be a palliative, not a solution to the underlying problem. At worst, any benefits it would provide would be temporary enough to lull people into a false sense of security allowing policy makers to ignore the real issues until it's too late.

    Second, it's just an experiment not a product for export or consumption. Go out into international waters where patent laws don't apply. Get the data. If this does somehow prove valuable in the long term and merits of roll out before the patent expires is approved, then worry about the patent issues.

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