Science is getting more and more complicated as we learn more and it becomes nearly impossible for any single human being to understand, let alone perform, all of the experiments necessary to push the boundaries of knowledge out a little further. It seems that the field of particle physics is quite accustomed to publishing papers with “kiloauthors” without a problem, but the practice may be extending to other fields now as well. (Just imagine how long the copyright should last… lifetimes of the authors plus 70 years.)
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.
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
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).
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.
Several discoveries in biology could lead to treatments that reverse the effects of aging and prolong lifespans. There isn’t quite a magic bullet, but it’s not unreasonable to think that people could live longer and longer lives. The Methuselah Foundation has several monetary prizes for researchers in the field of life extension interventions. Here are just a few other interesting research studies on aging.
David Levine points us to the abstract of a recent study of the human genome, which shows how the parts protected by intellectual property resulted in a significant decrease in both scientific research and product development. This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who have been following the research on patents over the years, but it’s another bit of evidence to add to the (growing) pile. In this case, the researcher, Heidi L. Williams, had an interesting “natural experiment” to deal with. The race to sequence the human genome had two main players, the public Human Genome Project and the private company Celera — a massive supporter of patent rights. The paper notes that Celera got IP on genes it first sequenced, but that IP protection was “removed when the public effort re-sequenced those genes.” I have to admit I didn’t know that was the case, and don’t quite understand how or why that happened. Nevertheless, it created a natural set of data worth studying, and Williams conclusions suggest that IP doesn’t seem to promote the same kind of progress as opening up the data does.
This paper provides empirical evidence on how intellectual property (IP) on a given technology affects subsequent innovation. To shed light on this question, I analyze the sequencing of the human genome by the public Human Genome Project and the private firm Celera, and estimate the impact of Celera’s gene-level IP on subsequent scientific research and product development outcomes. Celera’s IP applied to genes sequenced first by Celera, and was removed when the public effort re-sequenced those genes. I test whether genes that ever had Celera’s IP differ in subsequent innovation, as of 2009, from genes sequenced by the public effort over the same time period, a comparison group that appears balanced on ex ante gene-level observables. A complementary panel analysis traces the effects of removal of Celera’s IP on within-gene flow measures of subsequent innovation. Both analyses suggest Celera’s IP led to reductions in subsequent scientific research and product development outcomes on the order of 30 percent. Celera’s short-term IP thus appears to have had persistent negative effects on subsequent innovation relative to a counterfactual of Celera genes having always been in the public domain.
Levine laments that the NBER version of the paper he links to is not available for free, but a quick Google search turns up a few publicly available versions of the paper (though, they appear to be earlier drafts) such as this one (pdf)). There’s also the following powerpoint presentation (pdf) embedded below, which highlights the key findings and data from Williams’ research:
The key slide is the fourth one, which reads as follows:
Celera IP on genes has strong negative impact on future research and
35% fewer publications since 2001
16% points reduction in chance of gene having known uncertain
2% points reduction in chance of gene having known and certain
1.5% points less likely to be used in genetic tests
Also, Celera genes have not “caught up” with ex-ante similar genes
sequenced by HGP as of 2009
Now, it’s important to note that both the paper and the slide presentation note that you can’t necessarily conclude from this paper that IP slowed down the overall human genome sequencing efforts. It notes, for example, that the presence of Celera in the market, getting IP, may have created competitive pressure that sped up the Human Genome Project’s effort to sequence. However, it does note that given the competition between Celera and the Human Genome Project, it seems clear that Celera’s use of IP was clearly not the best way to create the greatest level of social benefit.
While the paper doesn’t delve into it, this is really another way of pointing to the difference between invention and innovation as a process. Innovation tends to be an ongoing process of continual improvements. And that’s where IP almost always seems to hinder activities, rather than help it. That’s because IP puts a giant brake or tollbooth into the process of all of that important follow on innovation. There may be some argument that IP can help in one-off situations where there is no ongoing innovation, but those situations are excessively rare in the real world, if they exist at all.