Michael Eisen, a geneticist at University of California, Berkeley, has written a blog post concerning the CRISPR dispute, the Bayh-Dole Act and academic science. Notably, Dr. Eisen is running for the U.S. Senate in California. Dr. Eisen is essentially critical of the Bayh-Dole Act for skewing incentives toward commercially valuable research, complicating accessing research, slowing the progress of research and creating incentives for researchers to “behave badly.” Here is an excerpt from his post:
Academic science is, after all, largely funded by the public. By all rights discoveries made on with public funds should belong to the public. And not too long ago they did. But legislation passed in 1980 – the Bayh-Dole Act – gave universities the right to claim patents on inventions made by their researchers on the public dime. Prior to 1980 these patents belonged to the federal government and many languished unused. The logic of Bayh-Dole was that, if they owned patents in their work, universities and other grantees would be incentivized to have their inventions turned into products, thereby benefiting the public.
But this is not how things worked out. Encouraged by a small number of patents that made huge sums, universities developed massive infrastructure to profit from their researchers. Not only do they spend millions on patents, they’ve turned every interaction scientists have with each other into an intellectual property transaction. Everything I get from or send to a colleague at another academic institution involves a complex legal agreement whose purpose is not to promote science but to protect the university’s ability to profit from hypothetical inventions that might arise from scientists doing what we’re supposed to do – share our work with each other.
And the idea that this system promotes the transformation of inventions made with public funding into products is laughable. CRISPR is a perfect case in point. The patent battle between UC and The Broad is likely to last for years. Meanwhile companies interested in actually developing CRISPR into new products are stymied by a combination of a lack of clarity about with whom to negotiate, and universities being difficult negotiating partners.
It would be so much easier if the US government simply placed all work arising from federal dollars into the public domain. We have a robust science and technology industry ready to exploit new ideas, and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists eager to fill in where existing companies are uninterested. Taxpayers would benefit by allowing the market, and not university licensing offices, to decide whose ideas and products make the best use of publicly funded inventions.
And most importantly we all would benefit returning academic science to its roots in basic discovery oriented research. We see with CRISPR the toxic effects of turning academic institutions into money hungry hawkers of intellectual property. Pursuit of patent riches has transformed The Broad Institute, which houses some of the most talented scientists working today, into a prominent purveyor of calumny.
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