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In a previous blog post, we presented the case for open science. Its advocates argue that the system of rewarding researchers for publishing their work in paywalled journals slows down science. They push for scientists to fully realize the potential of the Internet by publishing openly and collaborating on hard problems online. 

Researching the story, we also heard from a small but passionate number of people pointing to intellectual property (IP) rights as another barrier slowing down science. Companies competing to research and bring to market the next great product have no incentive to share their research or collaborate openly. 

The case against IP is much less obvious than the case against academic journals. The research in journals is almost entirely funded by governments and foundations to benefit the public. But IP exists to incentivize companies to invest in research. If they can’t patent their discoveries and profit off them, companies may not perform that research at all.

So what is the case against IP?

A Case from the Pharmaceutical Industry

Chas Bountra, a professor working on protein science and structural biology, tells the following story to demonstrate the wastefulness of scientific research in the pharmaceutical industry due to intellectual property.

In 1999, a researcher at the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Wellcome created an animal model. It predicted that removing a certain protein at birth would result in the animal having less pain. In 2000, the entire pharmaceutical industry jumped on the idea in a rush to prove the concept and develop a new drug for pain treatment.  

In 2003, Glaxo Wellcome developed a molecule that blocked the protein. But when they tested it in clinical trials, it failed to reduce pain. In other words, the idea had failed.

Nevertheless, in 2006, 60 pharmaceutical companies were still pursuing the idea. In mid 2010, Bountra met academics, pharmaceutical researchers, and biotechs who continued to believe that the protein was a promising avenue for pain relief. Not until Glaxo Wellcome published their disappointing findings in late 2010 did researchers cease working on the idea.

From these and similar experiences, Dr. Bountra concluded:

“What we’ve learned is that in early discovery, all this competition, all this secrecy, all this obsession with IP, and lack of publication or speedy publication, is wasting money, is wasting people’s careers, and most importantly, is harming patients.”

A Public-Private Model

Is there any alternative to intellectual property that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater? 

One model comes from an effort, beginning in 2003, to bring nonprofits, academia, and the private sector together to collaborate on azlheimer’s research. The New York Times describes the project, known as the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative:

“The key to the Alzheimer’s project was an agreement as ambitious as its goal: not just to raise money, not just to do research on a vast scale, but also to share all the data, making every single finding public immediately, available to anyone with a computer anywhere in the world. No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.”

Collectively, all the organizations and companies involved raised over $94 million to research the biomarkers present in patients developing alzheimer’s. Together, they worked with 800 test subjects over many years. They created a common, public data set and published publicly available papers. 

All the parties came together because they recognized that the challenge of identifying and following these biomarkers was prohibitively expensive and risky. Only by working together could they move the field forward, and that meant abandoning IP. As one researcher noted:

“It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.”

The effort has been well received, even serving as a precedent for a similar public-private collaboration in the search for a cure to Parkinson’s disease.

Dr. Bountra also works on a project that eschews the secrecy of scientists worried about competing over journal publications or intellectual property: The Structural Genomics Consortium. Leveraging public and private funding, the consortium publicly and openly produces novel proteins that can be used in the development of new drugs and makes them available for unrestricted use. Its work has made it a hub for the academics and pharmaceutical companies that benefit from their work, and sped up the process of creating new proteins.  

Precedents or Exceptions? 

According to Dr. Bountra, collaborations like this, which pool resources, break down research barriers (including IP), and grant collaborators access to global resources, make sense for problems that are particularly hard, long-term, and risky. 

The secrecy of private sector research is an inevitable side-effect of intellectual property. In general, IP makes research happen that would not otherwise. But for particularly challenging problems, new forms of open collaboration that do not allow IP to be claimed may be in everyone’s interest and move forward a field that would be stuck otherwise.

Are the precedents discussed above models that should be applied widely in science? Or are they exceptions that apply only to particularly difficult problems or certain medical fields? Let us know in the comments.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.