26 November 2009

Who Owns Science? The Manchester Manifesto

One of my heroes, Sir John Sulston, has a piece in the Guardian today with the intriguing headline "How science is shackled by intellectual property":

The myth is that IP rights are as important as our rights in castles, cars and corn oil. IP is supposedly intended to encourage inventors and the investment needed to bring their products to the clinic and marketplace. In reality, patents often suppress invention rather than promote it: drugs are "evergreened" when patents are on the verge of running out – companies buy up the patents of potential rivals in order to prevent them being turned into products. Moreover, the prices charged, especially for pharmaceuticals, are often grossly in excess of those required to cover costs and make reasonable profits.

IP rights are beginning to permeate every area of scientific endeavour. Even in universities, science and innovation, which have already been paid for out of the public purse, are privatised and resold to the public via patents acquired by commercial interests. The drive to commercialise science has overtaken not only applied research but also "blue-skies" research, such that even the pure quest for knowledge is subverted by the need for profit.

Great stuff, but this is actually just a teaser for the launch today of something called rather grandly "The Manchester Manifesto" [.pdf], which states the problem as follows:

It is clear that the dominant existing model of innovation, while serving some necessary purposes for the current operation of innovation, also impedes achievement of core scientific goals in a number of ways. In many cases it restricts access to scientific knowledge and products, thereby limiting the public benefits of science; it can restrict the flow of information, thereby inhibiting the progress of science; and it may hinder innovation through the costly and complicated nature of the system. Limited improvements may be achieved through modification of the current IP system, but consideration of alternative models isurgently required.

Unfortunately, after asking the right questions, the answer that the manifesto comes up with is pretty thin gruel:

We call for further research towards achieving more equitable innovation and enabling greater fulfilment of the goals of science as we see them.

Further research?

Modified and alternative models of innovation have the potential to address problems inherent in the current system. An investigation and evaluation of these models is required in order to determine whether they are likely to be more successful in facilitating the goals of science and innovation identified above, and if so how they may be deployed.

Hey, let's not get too radical, eh?

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Dave K said...

Totally agreed... I was left rather underwhelmed by the "Manifesto" though it's at least a document with principles that other groups can try to use to leverage support for their own causes.

It's better than what Canada has (where I'm originally from) - but there is an intriguing group that exists in Canada and America called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines which is trying to push a little more strongly for patents to be opened for generics in poorer countries...

Glyn Moody said...

@Dave: thanks for the info; they're here, I find