Intellectual Property Regime Stifles Science and Innovation, Nobel Laureates SayPublished on 7 July 2008 @ 12:14 am
Intellectual Property Watch
By Dugie Standeford for Intellectual Property Watch
MANCHESTER, UK – The basic framework of the intellectual property (IP) regime aims to “close down access to knowledge” rather than allowing its dissemination, Professor Joseph Stiglitz said at a 5 July lecture on “Who Owns Science?” Stiglitz, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economics, and Professor John Sulston, a 2002 Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine, launched Manchester University’s new Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation.
Both were highly critical of today’s patent system, saying it stifles science and innovation.
IP is often compared to physical property rights but knowledge is fundamentally different, Stiglitz said. It is a public good with two attributes – “non-rivalrous competition” and non-excludability – meaning it is difficult to prevent others from enjoying its benefits. That runs counter to IP regimes, which are worse than exclusion because they create monopoly power over knowledge that is often abused, he said.
Patent monopolies are believed to drive innovation but they actually impede the pace of science and innovation, Stiglitz said. The current “patent thicket,” in which anyone who writes a successful software programme is sued for alleged patent infringement, highlights the current IP system’s failure to encourage innovation, he said.
Another problem is that the social returns from innovation do not accord with the private returns associated with the patent system, Stiglitz said. The marginal benefit from innovation is that an idea may become available sooner than it might have. But the person who secures the patent on it wins a long-term monopoly, creating a gap between private and social returns.
The Human Genome Project identified a gene that predicts breast cancer and that was patented by a US company, Stiglitz said. The actual cost of testing for the gene is minimal but patients’ costs are so high in the US that poor people are unable to obtain the test, he said. That raises questions about the equity and fairness of the patent system, he said.
Stiglitz raised two concerns. Developed countries are separated from developing countries by the disparity in access to knowledge and IP is making it harder to close the gap, he said, which is why developing nations in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) called for (and got) a development agenda. Moreover, IP results in less access to health care, he said. Generic medicines cost a fraction of brand names but the World Trade Organization Uruguay Round agreement on IP and trade signed a death warrant for millions of people by making access to generic drugs more difficult, he said.
Stiglitz proposed that IP regimes be tailored to specific countries and sectors. No one believes that the patent system should be entirely abandoned, but the question is whether other tools, such as prizes or government funding, could be used to promote access to knowledge and spur innovation in areas where there are well-defined objectives such as a cure for malaria, he said. Stiglitz said he is hopeful of reform because many in the US are seeking changes to the IP system.
Sulston said science can be driven by need and curiosity, which requires a substantial degree of openness and trust among players. Increasingly, however, the picture is one of private ownership of science and innovation, a situation welcomed by governments and investors who control the direction of research, he said. But the consequence is to funnel science into profitable areas and steer clear of those that will not make money, he said.
That trend has several consequences, including the neglect of research on diseases of the poor and the production of unnecessary drugs sold through high-pressure marketing, Sulston said. There has been a failure of equitable distribution of the goods of science but the solution is not to have “dull insistence on equality,” he said.
IP is an ideological issue in quarters such as WIPO, Sulston said. Drug companies see any improvements to the system as weakening it, but no one is saying they have to give everything away, he said. The system should be a “good servant” not elevated to a “theistic level,” he said.
Counterfeiting has become a major issue, Sulston said. The trend is to link counterfeiting with IP but they are not connected, he said. If drugs are sold at their cost of production or just above, counterfeiters would have little room in which to play. The IP system is causing the production of bogus products, he said.
Sulston recommended a return to the old practice of splitting research and development from production, saying mixing the two leads to lobbying and advertising in R&D. Splitting them allows equitable delivery of products and can make R&D openly accessible, but only if those who share science also share its benefits, he said.
That separation appears to be happening to some extent as private companies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funnel money into public health, Sulston said, but he warned against a return to the Victorian days when healthcare was supported by philanthropy. He urged that global health issues be coordinated by the World Health Organization, but said it is underfunded and heavily lobbied by governments and commercial interests.
Sulston also wants more coherent thinking about a biomedical treaty being examined by the WHO, and greater input from transnational non-governmental organisations.
Reversing the trend toward privatisation of science is critical, Sulston said. The world should concentrate on the survival and thriving of humanity, and exploration of the universe, he said. The outcome, he added, depends to a great extent on “who owns science.”
Dugie Standeford may be reached at email@example.com.