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Publicly Funded Research

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 8: Sharing Culture (pages 117-134)

Patently Unscientific

Enclosure of the commons has also been occurring in the world of science. Here, too, the Founders’ intentions were clear. Ben Franklin, no slouch when it came to the dollar, never sought a patent on his most famous invention, the Franklin stove. “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” he wrote, “we should be glad to serve others by any invention of ours.” Thomas Jefferson, who served as first head of the U.S. Patent Office, believed the purpose of the office was to promulgate inventions, not protect them. He rejected nearly half the applications submitted during his term. (Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made it through.)

As with copyrights, this stringent approach to patents worked well for a long time. America didn’t lack inventiveness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and let it be remembered that we stole much of our early technology from the British). But from midcentury to the present, patenting has become a national pastime. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which let universities get patents on taxpayer-funded research and license those patents to corporations, opened the floodgates. Corporate money rushed into academic labs, and with it came a corporate mindset. Where scientists once shared their discoveries openly, many now fear to discuss them, lest someone beat them to the patent office. Today, some say, the secrecy is so intense and the thicket of property rights so dense that the advancement of research has noticeably slowed.

The U.S. Patent Office has gone along with this, issuing patents for everything from one-click shopping on the Internet to genes that are 99 percent nature-made. Often, companies get patents not with the intention of developing them, but rather with the intention of suing someone else who might (a practice known as patent trolling). Figure 8.1 shows the dramatic rise in number of patents issued over the past few decades.

Consumers and taxpayers are burdened as well. Thanks to patents, pharmaceutical companies can charge monopoly prices for up to twenty years after introducing a new drug. This is said to benefit society by providing incentives for research, but according to the Center for Economic Policy Research, the benefit is greatly exceeded by the cost. Pharmaceutical companies spend about $25 billion a year on research, of which about 70 percent is for copycat drugs that mimic competitors’ brands and add no significant health benefits.

The federal government could fund 100 percent of noncopycat research — and place the resulting drugs in the public domain — entirely from cost savings to Medicare and Medicaid. On top of that, the savings to consumers from lower drug costs would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year.

To release science from corporate control, we need to take a twofold approach: apply more stringent standards for issuing patents, and provide more public funds for research (with the proviso that publicly funded discoveries stay in the public domain). The track record for publicly funded research has, in fact, been phenomenal. The entire computer industry was spawned by the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, which produced the first digital computer in 1945. Similarly, the Internet emerged from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation in the 1980s. It’s hard to imagine the modern world without either of these breakthroughs, or with the Internet being owned, say, by Verizon or TimeWarner. ... read the whole chapter




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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper