Thursday, August 23, 2007

Why Must Scientists Be Poor?

[Update: The University of Toronto has increased the profitability of working with the institution to bring inventions into the marketplace. Clearly this blog has some high-powered readers.]

According to a talk I heard at a recent conference, it is the view of orthodox scholarship that scientific discoveries should not be eligible for patents. (By “patent” I mean an agreement by which the discoverer is entitled to a financial reward from those who make use of the discovery).

This seems odd to me. Is there any good reason to deny scientists (and academic researchers in general) to benefit financially from lucrative applications of their work? A few reasons jump to mind, but they don’t seem very convincing. I wonder if I am missing something here, or if scientists (and academic researchers in general) oppose patenting just on the grounds of scholarly purity.

The first temptation is to reach for the “discovery”/”invention” distinction. How can a person claim ownership of some pre-existing thing that they just happen to stumble upon, like a wallet in the street? Quite easily, I should think, if the thing in question is not already owned by someone else, and if the process of discovery was long and difficult.

Why would we think otherwise, except by relying on the misleading analogy with found physical objects, like wallets? Certainly we have no problem with the practice of rewarding people for their discoveries (Nobel Prize, anyone?) Why should we baulk at making this reward financial?

Perhaps we have a problem with rewarding ideas, as opposed to objects or practices. But is this distinction tenable? Patents for ideas would only ever apply to ideas that have been somehow realized in practice, in which case they are objects and practices. In this case, surely at least some of the credit should go towards the author of the idea, without whom the objects or practices could not have existed. It seems inconsistent to reward a person who designs and builds a particular kind of fridge, but not the person who formulated the theories of thermodynamics that the designer relied upon.

Of course, it would be a tiny bit impracticable to patent the laws of thermodynamics(so many different uses, with such a complex and sometimes distant relationship with the original laws). But surely not all scientific discoveries are of such a general kind.

(It is possible that the distinction between ideas and objects/practices is sometimes conflated with the distinction between thoughts and statements, or between notions and thoughts. Of course one cannot patent an unexpressed idea. And it would be hard to justify the patenting of a vague idea or notion, as opposed to a clearly formulated idea. But obviously a scientific discovery can take the form of a clearly formulated statement.)

What about the “communal effort” objection? Granted, scientific discoveries are the result of many people’s work, stretching back for many decades. But so are new drugs, and new tennis racquet designs. And if it’s impossible to grant a patent to an individual scientist, why not try the research team who did the important work on a particular discovery?

This pretty much exhausts the plausible objections to scientific patents, as least that I can think of. Am I wrong to think that scientists are currently denied the right to patenting their work? Or are scientists that concerned about the integrity of their work that they are unwilling to accept direct financial rewards (or perhaps their employers are unwilling to let them)?


Richard said...

Patenting raises the costs of future research. The academic enterprise works so well precisely because we are free to build on the work of our forebears.

Maybe a "sharealike" license would work, i.e. whereby anyone may make free use of the research only if they release their own work under these same conditions. (Commercial appropriators should have to pay for what they take from the scientific commonwealth.)

Mike B said...

Cheers Richard. That makes sense. But from what I've heard, the objection to patenting seems to be directed as much against financial licensing arrangements between academics and the wider world as between academics themselves. (I should have made this distinction clearer in the original post).

So I wonder if there are any good reasons for people to oppose the sort of "sharealike" arrangement that you suggest.

Admittedly, my evidence of such opposition is pretty scant and anecdotal (which is not of course the fault of an AAHPSSS conference!)

AceConnors said...

I've had similar feelings about scholars and intellectuals being paid to give lectures. I'm sure they're glad to make some money, and that many such talks would not occur otherwise. But something feels weird about paying professors like performers, and I think it's that the sharing of ideas in this context is something that you'd like to happen because it's part of an intellectual ideal, not because we pay people to do it.