28 April 2011

Damaging the DNA of Science

Here's a sad story, but not for the reason you might expect:

Developing therapies from human embryonic stem cells is under threat in Europe, say scientists.

In a letter to Nature, they express "profound concern" about moves at the European Court of Justice to ban patent protection for embryonic stem cell lines.


In their letter to Nature, the scientists argue that industry would have no incentive to invest in this area unless their innovations could be protected with patents.

This is the old FUD that unless patents are given for every possible advance, industry will never "invest". Well, even assuming that were true, scientists shouldn't be worrying about that: they are *scientists*, not managers. They are supposed to be motivated by love of knowledge, by the joy of research. Patents weren't allowed on the results of the Human Genome Project, and yet somehow that came to splendid fruition: why should stem cell research be any different?

And the idea that industry doesn't invest without patents is nonsense: that's precisely what happened in the world of software until a misguided court decision allowed programs to be patented in the US. But the introduction of patents in that field has led to a net *loss* for the industry of billions of dollars, as the book "Patent Failure" - written by two supporters of patents - explains in great detail.

The central motivation for innovation is not to get a patent, but to use that innovation to surpass rivals and win business as a result - it's a means to an end. Even if those rivals then use that same invention, they are still at a disadvantage because they are simply following in the original innovator's footsteps. And if they manage to develop the work further, then they advance the field and provide more ideas for yet more innovation - that's how things are supposed to work.

But what's really sad about this whole episode is the fact that scientists have become so corrupted by the trend towards turning knowledge into property that they can't conceive of carrying out exciting science without the nominal incentives of patents. This indicates that something bad has happened to very DNA of science - and patented stem cell research certainly isn't going to fix it.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


Valdis said...

I've been in science almost 3rd of my life and I've seen brilliant minds in modest persons, but also ambitious "scientists" with pale minds, who actually are managers digesting grants and funds.
It's not surprise second kind is complaining if they can't ensure their financial base.

Glyn Moody said...

@valdis: true; but I was disappointed with New Scientist's uncritical support of that position.