Who owns science? Questionable critique of IP system

17 December 2009

The ‘Manchester Manifesto’ is a new document from a group convened to consider the current system of ownership and management of science and innovation. Produced by a group led by John Sulston of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester and Joseph Stiglitz of the Brooks World Poverty Institute, the brief document identifies the key goal of science as being to serve the public good by generating knowledge to meet human needs and purposes’. Of note, thirty of the fifty signatories are from the University of Manchester.

Unsurprisingly, given their predominantly academic backgrounds, the group concludes that pure (basic) scientific research is ‘clearly in the public interest, since curiosity expands knowledge’ but also note that technical innovation provides additional economic benefits to society. The group asserts that current models of management and commercialisation of science and technology – including the system of patenting scientific inventions, and of intellectual property and licensing relating to patents – restrict public access to the benefits of research. The manifesto states that restrictions imposed by current systems are ‘contrary to the needs of scientific inquiry and are inimical to openness and transparency’, adding that effects are most severe on public, not-for-profit, small and developing country enterprises.

It calls for urgent consideration of alternative new models – claiming that modification of the current intellectual property system would have only limited impact – and states that regulation of frameworks for innovation should seek to promote and balance factors including public benefit, trust between stakeholders, and addressing local and global welfare and resource inequities.

Comment: This brief new document, besides being a clear plea for continued investment in basic research (possibly in reaction to new UK emphasis on translational research and the adoption and diffuusion of new technologies and products) raises some interesting issues with respect to the inequities related to scientific commercialisation.

Some of the principles and concerns are very valid. For example, there is ongoing opposition to patenting of human gene sequences and criticism of their negative impact of patient access to affordable genetic tests; in a current US lawsuit the Association for Molecular Pathology is contesting the legality of existing patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes held by Myriad Genetics and the University of Utah Research Foundation as contrary to prohibitions on patenting ‘products of nature’ [Lenzer J (2009) BMJ 339, doi: 10.1136/bmj.b4899]

The stated aim of the manifesto to ‘build a better future for humanity’ is likewise a compelling one. Certainly, the PHG Foundation believes that health is an essential prerequisite for human development and is concerned with making the health benefits of science available to vulnerable populations based on need (see About us).

However, the manifesto wholly fails to recognise the critical role of the commercial sector in funding and conducting applied research, and the necessity of some form of system to protect intellectual property in order to retain sufficient economic imperatives for companies to continue their heavy investment in research and innovation. Critical responses to the document, such as the assertion that it is ill-informed and misleading’ are therefore unsurprising.

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