This post serves a few purposes. First,
Bill Hooker questioned Crotty’s
assertion about the importance of patents to university
researchers [*]. Bill also posted
a nice summary of AUTM’s statistics (later in DrugMonkey’s
comment stream there were other discussions of biotech
spinoffs). There are certainly some patents that could make
you obscenely wealthy, but these are not all that common (1:2000?
1:10,000?) and I think the consensus is that most tech transfer offices
break even (or slightly better), but do not provide massive revenue
streams for their universities. So why do universities have
tech transfer offices? The first reason is that universities
have a social obligation – in particular if they are publicly funded
institutions – to serve the community. Universities
create the knowledge that can make the world a better place, but they
themselves can’t go into vaccine production or widget production.
Even after something is patented, it will take some support
from the scientist or engineer, and possibly a lot of work to actually
get it into production – particularly if it’s a highly regulated
industry. Why would companies spend all of that money and take that
risk if they didn’t have first mover advantage? So
universities must patent so that they can get companies to take these
ideas, invest in them to get them into actual products, and actually
make them available for society to make the world a better
place. Second, it’s a matter of prestige for the university.
They are competing for research funding, employees, and students, so
this is one way to prove that they’re doing cutting edge work.
Third, even through you can publish to prevent other people
from patenting, the safest way to make sure you can continue to use a
technology is to protect it with a patent, and then not to prevent any
future work in any licenses.
The second idea is that I’m all into STS – but I think theories and
studies that neglect the structural issues of society and the lab’s
place in the world miss really important factors.
Third idea is that I need to integrate ideas from STS better – in
particular since I don’t have any practice questions for sts AT ALL and
this is a major area for me. (BTW – do you or someone you know have an
MS/MA or PhD in Science Studies, Philosophy of Science,
Science and Technology studies? If so, could you forward me
any essay exam questions I could use for practice? All of the
websites for the programs say “they’re available at the office or from
your advisor” so I would be eternally grateful)
This article is on my comps reading list and is apparently where I got
some of the ideas I spouted above and on Bill’s blog and friendfeed
Kleinman, D. L.(1998). Untangling Context: Understanding a University
Laboratory in the Commercial World. Science, Technology, &
Human Values 23(3), 285-314. [**]
Kleinman argues that the approaches used in actor-network theory and
social worlds emphasize agency to the exclusion of social structural
constraints on actors. These ignored constraints include
those imposed by institutions and the distribution of resources.
These methods also basically start at time 0, with the actors
co-constructing everything – but we know that there existing stable
attributes of the world in which the lab and scientsts are situated.
So the author has it both ways: structures are constructed,
but “actors will confront structures that are already constructed and
that these structures will shape parctices”. There is a
tradition of studying laboratories (a whole area in STS) – but many of
these, including the most famous by Latour and Woolgar [***], study
labs that are insulated from the application of their science.
Kleinman studies a lab that not only researches the basic
science, but also the application of the science, and has
collaborations with the university tech transfer office as well as
agro-businesses. Kleinman acts as a participant observer in
the lab (like a tech who actually screens soil samples and what not as
well as an ethnographer) for a while and then just an observer.
He was in the lab at a really key point. Patenting of rDNA
technology, a Supreme Court decision allowing the patenting of genes
and things, the increasing importance of corporate funding of
university biotechnology labs (even if still a small % of the
university’s total research funding), the Bayh-Dole act, and
the commercialization and standardization of biological research
materials all impact the way this lab does science. (p294-5). (as an
aside – interesting background on biocontrol – what this lab studies –
contrasted with chemicals developed after WW2 – also compare with
studies used in diffusion of innovations research). The
acceptance of a chemical fungicide that performs about the same
function as the lab’s biocontrol agent means that the agent is used as
a yardstick – the new agent must be as effective, easy to use, and
inexpensive as the existing. The lab was using commercially
prepared polymerase – which it turned out, was contaminated so was
messing up their results. This is an example of how the lab
is dependent on a limited number companies for standardized resources
sometimes treat like black boxes, trusting the specifications from the
The lab discussed making its own instead of buying to avoid
contamination issues, but the polymerase was proprietary as was PCR.
Even though there is an exemption for experimental use for
basic science, the owner of PCR and the polymerase had sued university
and government labs and scientists for patent infringement.
It’s not whether or not the university and lab could
successfully defend against such a law suit, it’s if they have the time
and resources to spend doing so. Also, if they do lose, or
win but the basic research right is narrowed, it could really cost them
for future work. It’s easier to pay than to defend a moral right –
particularly when your goal is to do science.
The lab regularly applies for patents, but the author didn’t see
evidence of them changing what the lab studies to increase the
number of patents. What follows that is a discussion like my point
above – the evidence does not back up the idea that patent protection
is critical for innovation – but people believe that it is, and to
collaborate with industry university labs in biotech need to patent and
license. The leader of the lab also uses patents to attract
industry notice and research funding. Unfortunately,
university tech transfer officials might not be in harmony with the lab
– they might grant an exclusive license which would impede the lab from
working with other companies.
So compare this with Polyani’s [****]
discussion of the invisible hand,
in which there’s a marketplace for ideas in science, and scientists
work on those that are most promising and to which they can make the
biggest contribution. In this case, the milieu of the lab has
a lot to do with the research problems selected, particularly if the
university tech transfer office writes the licenses carelessly.
Likewise, the patenting of the inputs to the lab makes them
more expensive, means there are fewer suppliers, and that the
experiments might need to be done differently.
Nevermind the fact that discussing or disclosing an invention to anyone
besides the inventor starts certain clocks and that inventors should
already have official disclosures and maybe provisional applications in
via their tech transfer office prior to discussing an invention at any
meeting. Also nevermind the idea that you might intentionally
publish either formally or informally to prevent someone else from
[**] Please note that
>80% of the people reading this blog will know 100% more about
this area of science than either I or the author of the piece – but
that’s not the point!
Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life:
The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, N.J.:
Princeton University Press.
[****]Polanyi, M. (2000). The
republic of science: Its
political and economic theory. Minerva: A Review of Science,
Learning & Policy, 38, 1-21.