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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: human genome, public domain


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Apr 2013 @ 3:06am

    I am shocked that a granted monopoly which is a barrier to entry produces less innovation.

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