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Sharing science is a crime

The more one shares, the more one undermines a future patent application and a system that encourages privatisation.

Last Modified: 03 Aug 2013 15:29
Charles Davis

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.
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Scientists complain that because Monsanto takes such a strong stand in defence of its patented seeds, it is effectively impossible to conduct research on them [Reuters]

You did it, friend. You helped discover the cure for cancer. Pretty big deal, that. Just imagine: Within 20 years, leukemia and lymphoma could end up being nothing more than trendy baby names - alongside yours.

Understandably, your first impulse might be to share your discovery. Tell the world! But not so fast, professor. Your holier-than-thou plan for sainthood has one big flaw: that fancy little cure of yours is worth a pretty little penny. And divulging that cure before someone can patent it is likely to land you in a prison cell for crimes against economic disparity. Quarterly profits are people too, you know. And the reality is whether you want to be a saint or not, the economic considerations that govern academic research in the United States almost give one no choice but to be a scoundrel.

It doesn't matter if you start out working for a university. Scientists are given two choices for getting their research funded, academia or not: go to work for the Pentagon or start making something you can patent. And the government and its corporations want it that way.

Of the $140bn in research and development funding requested by President Barack Obama for 2013, according to the Congressional Research Service, more than half goes through the Department of Defense; less than $30bn through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That invariably leads to a shift in resources, with scientists going to where the money is: instead of finding ways to cure, finding high-tech ways to kill or otherwise aid the war effort. Researchers at the University of Arizona, for instance, received a $1.5m grant to "adapt their breast cancer imaging research for detection of embedded explosives", which speaks rather well to the US government's priorities and the toll it takes on research that has the general public in mind.

The 'undoubling' of federal research

"For anyone who tracks trends in funding, our FY 2013 budget ($1.4bn) is roughly equivalent, in absolute dollars, to our FY 2004 budget," wrote Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a May 2013 email to NIMH researchers. "Corrected for inflation, we are nearly back to 1999, essentially 'undoubling' our budget."

If you think that your goal as a scientist is to cure disease, you want people in China and everywhere else in the world to know about. Only if you think your purpose is to generate patents and make money do you keep these kinds of things secret.

Michael Eisen, a biologist and advocate of "open science" at the University of California, Berkeley

Austerity has encouraged research institutions to look to the corporate sector for money. Now, even research that is expensed to the taxpayer is sold off to the highest bidder, universities looking to make an extra buck any way they can. And that means keeping scientific developments a secret.

As in the corporate sector, research conducted on the taxpayer dime is now usually locked behind a paywall, with major research institutions looking to recoup their costs through patents. In 2011, universities filed more than 12,000 patents earned $1.8bn from commercialising their "intellectual property", according to the Association of University Technology Managers, a trade group. Research that can be taken to market with the help of a corporate partner is the priority, not science for its own sake.

Since so much of the research that takes place on American campuses is funded by the military, not civilian institutions, it sort of makes sense that sharing that research with non-US citizens would be considered a form of spying, at least from the national security state's perspective. However, the US government is not just trying to safeguard future weapons systems - any research that could conceivably make a rich person richer enjoys the same protections from prying foreign eyes.

Taking advantage of freedom

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Economic Espionage Act of 1995 makes it a federal offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison for someone to  "knowingly" deliver a "trade secret" into the hands of a foreign government or institution. As written, that means even if someone had the most honest of intentions - hey, maybe people outside of America get cancer too - they would still be considered a spy for letting a scientific secret cross a body of water. If that secret is ever disclosed, it will be disclosed on corporate America's terms. And it will make someone a lot of money.

Consider the case of Hua Jun Zhao. A researcher at Wisconsin Medical College, Zhao was recently accused of stealing several vials of a potentially cancer-fighting compound he was working on with the intent of passing it on to a university in China, allegedly as his own work. If true, Zhao certainly committed a crime - theft - and perhaps intended to commit academic fraud. But when the FBI came knocking, the $8,000 in missing goods was treated as espionage. Zhao, according to the bureau, was a spy.

In a press release, the FBI alleged that the Chinese native used his position to "illegally acquire patented cancer research material and to have taken steps to provide that material to Zhejiang University in China". Among the goals served by his arrest, the bureau stated, was protecting America's "competitiveness in an age of globalisation". By law, the espionage case had to first be approved by a top official at the Justice Department.

It's about money

"If you think that your goal as a scientist is to cure disease, you want people in China and everywhere else in the world to know about," said Michael Eisen, a biologist and advocate of "open science" at the University of California, Berkeley. "Only if you think your purpose is to generate patents and make money do you keep these kinds of things secret," he says. "It's a gross perversion of the whole mission of academic research."

The irony is that if researchers at Wisconsin Medical College had simply been more open about their "patented cancer research material", someone like Zhao would have no incentive to take it. There's no point in trying to pass someone else's research off as your own when the whole world already knows about it. But, and this is important: the secrecy makes some people rich.

"Patents are about keeping things away from people for the purpose of making money," explained Rosalyn Yalow, who won a Nobel prize in 1977 for her work on radioimmunoassay (RIA). The introduced technology revolutionised medicine, allowing medical professionals to detect antibodies and contaminants in a person's blood, which is useful in the fight against hepatitis, cancer and a whole host of other disorders.

"We never thought of patenting RIA," Yalow told an interviewer. She was often asked if she regretted not using her invention to get rich, but Yalow wanted as many people to use it as possible. "Anyway, we had no time for such nonsense," she said.

The technique Yalow developed would end up being used around the world, counter to the official narrative that only by granting monopoly rights to a corporation will an idea make it to market. If you have ever given blood, your blood has probably been tested using RIA. Indeed, the result of Yalow's decision to freely distribute her work, as biographer Eugene Straus noted, "was exponential progress in virtually every aspect of medicine and biological science". Patenting RIA would have meant more people receiving tainted blood transfusions; more people first learning they had cancer when it was already too late. It would have meant more people dying.

All publicly funded research should be in the public domain - no patents, no copyrights, no restrictions on use, period.

Michael Eisen

Patenting RIA would have meant increased suffering for a lot of people, but it also would have meant a lot of money for a few. Were the technique developed today on a college campus, there is no way the inventor would be permitted to just give it away. Indeed, under legislation passed by Congress in 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act , academic researchers are obligated to report any commercially promising discoveries to the higher-ups.

Stanford University instructs its researchers to report any idea or invention with the potential to "return at least $100,000 to the university over the lifetime of the patent". The university will also patent research on the advice of a "company expert, a consultant, [or] a venture capitalist".

Blocking research

Indeed, the modern university has plenty of time for patent nonsense, with "technology transfer" offices set up on campus whose sole purpose it is to try and commercialise their academic(s') research. Unfortunately for most colleges, filing patents is a losing proposition. While thought of as a way to encourage research, patenting it often has the effect of mothballing it, making scientific discoveries off limits to the other scientists who would otherwise build upon it. That germ of a great idea? Unless someone's willing to license it for cash, it's not leaving the petri dish.

The siren song of a big patent payday has even led schools to argue against the interests of some of their own scientists.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, lawyers for the University of California, consistently one of the top academic filers of patents in the US, urged the justices to side with agricultural giant Monsanto in a battle over whether farmers could plant successive generations of the company's genetically modified seeds without paying licensing fees.

Scientists complain that because Monsanto takes such a strong stand in defence of its patented seeds, it is effectively impossible to conduct research on them without first gaining the company's approval, which is unlikely to be granted to scientists perceived as unfriendly, is sort of a problem when potentially dangerous genetically modified organisms are being introduced into nature.

In its filing with the court, however, the University of California argued that strengthening the US patent regime was more important, pointing out that a loss for Monsanto would mean one could "make an unlimited number of identical copies of [an] invention without having to compensate the patentee for those subsequent copies. In a short period of time, the market for the technology would become saturated with copies."

In other words, once expensive and artificially scarce technology would become cheap and abundant, absent the free protection the state offers patent holders. And scientists could freely study this technology. Awful.

Blame empire

Scientists, and academics in particular, used to be all about the free distribution of their work. Their egos were served primary by people acknowledging their findings, not by being paid massive amounts of money (though that didn't hurt). At the very least, talk of profits was thought best left to the vulgar businessman.

Henry Dale, a British pharmacologist who won a Nobel Prize in 1936, perhaps best summarised the science-for-science's-sake position when he wrote that, "the primary and special function of research in the universities is to build the main fabric of knowledge by free and untrammeled inquiry and to be concerned with the practical uses of it, only as these arise in the course of a natural development".

Inside Story - Protecting patents or patients?

Dr Dale would not get along with his college's technology transfer office were he alive today. As Marshall G Hussain Shuler, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, explains: significant cuts to non-military science - the "undoubling" of NIMH funding, for example - have led to a shift in sources of funding and academic priorities, the former dictating the latter. Once above-it-all academics are now being encouraged to "establish more direct relationships with pharmaceutical companies and the biomedical industry", he says, "which was once regarded as an obvious cause of conflict of interest."

Money has a way of changing one's perspective. So does decades of war.

"The root cause driving austerity," as Hussain Shuler sees it, "is rampant militarism." We have money for wars, as a famous American poet observed, but we can't feed the poor. And we don't much care about the mental health problems that causes.

Rather, research in neuroscience is increasingly being conducted with an eye toward potential military applications, such as the treatment of combat-related PTSD by way of regret-erasing drugs. And that's because of who is funding more and more of the research these days: the military. Indeed, the chief financial backer of President Obama's recently announced $100m " BRAIN Initiative" - billed as a "bold new research effort to revolutionise our understanding of the human mind" - is DARPA, not the NIMH.

Disclosure as direct action

"All publicly funded research should be in the public domain - no patents, no copyrights, no restrictions on use, period," says Eisen, the UC Berkeley biologist and co-founder of the Public Library of Science, which supports the free distribution of scientific work. For that to be the case, there needs to be a serious change in the way research is funded. And the politicians who created the current system would have to change it, which could anger the defence contractors and patent holders who give them money. But there are things scientists can start doing today to begin the process of change.

"I am completely in favour of people subverting their institutions' efforts to patent their work," says Eisen. And that subversion need not be risky. Indeed, "there are lots of legal ways to make it difficult or impossible for one's work to be patented," he says, "including sharing your progress with the world on an ongoing basis."

In other words, you don't have to seek asylum in a Russian airport, doctor. Just start a blog. Spread the word about your work in the public domain, not an exclusive medical journal. Ask your kid about Twitter. The more one shares, the more one undermines a future patent application and the system that encourages the privatisation of knowledge.

"This should be our primary mission," says Eisen. "Otherwise, we're just poorly organised branches of companies." Or underpaid defense contractors.

Charles Davis is a writer currently based in Los Angeles.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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