Monday, March 2, 2009

Intellectual Property, Biotechnology and the Stimulus

This is a small section of a much larger project that I've been working on for some time. Though the moment of perfect relevance has passed, and I've voiced some of these sentiments before, I hope it's useful to have some more precise numbers out there.

Intellectual property is something of a paradox. Konstantinos Karachalios of the EU patent office put this point elegantly at the 2009 TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue conference on patents, copyrights and knowledge governance: public perception of patenting is precisely the opposite of its linguistic history and dictionary definition. While patent, the opposite of latent, comes from the latin pateo, meaning to be opened, revealed or exposed, even the most educated about the subject think first about the limitations imposed by patents rather than the disclosure they encourage. It is important to remember that patents and copyrights exist solely to facilitate human advancement, which makes the economic benefits and rights of inventors merely a means to attain an end, not ends themselves. For this is quite deeply not how intellectual property has been treated and generally understood in recent years.

In large part, the schism is due to the fundamentally lopsided number of experiences with intellectual property: as there are simply more consumers than producers, the vast majority of personal encounters with patents or copyrights will entail the hinderance of access to knowledge or technology. Most famously – and the fame itself is a contributing factor, here – long-standing fights over the ownership and widespread piracy of audio and video works exploded in the late 1990s as internet file-sharing became ubiquitous. As the temptations of technology and corporate approaches to profit together turned what would formerly be mere irresponsibility on the part of private citizens into a prosecutable criminal act, the public perception of intellectual property naturally took a nose dive.

At the same time, less well-known consequences of the recent priority of intellectual property are felt far more deeply than the copyfight. The “patent thickets” created during the development of drugs, diagnostic tests and medical devices, for example, play an unfortunate role in the high cost of medical care. Genetic tests are a particular assailable, as the price to patients is a massive multiple of the strictly calculated cost of development or administration. Still, though the tremendous expense of researching and testing drugs justifies their cost more intelligibly, they usually come with unaffordably high price tags as well. The move towards biotechnologically developed drugs will only worsen this phenomena.

Nevertheless, the increasing economic importance of intellectual property over the last several decades is hard to overstate. In 1995/1996, for example, investment in knowledge-based industries took up 8.4% of the United States GDP, compared to 16.9% in physical industries; but the value added by knowledge-based industries made up 55.3% of the total.*

Nor is this a merely academic characterization of the state of the economy. During the February 6th senate debate on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) argued for a shift in the way that the Congress has traditionally viewed infrastructure: “The new infrastructure is also about intellectual property, and it is also about strengthening our scientific investments.”

Ultimately, despite objections to aspects of the proposed NIH funding from House Republicans, the final package contains more than $15 billion for scientific research, split between the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

As these agencies comprise the bulk of non-military federal science, and $15 billion represents a substantial percentage of their combined annual budgets, the economic stimulus package contains unprecedented federal funding of scientific research. The NSF, to take perhaps the most extreme example, will receive $3 billion on top of a 2008 budget of just over $6 billion – a nearly unheard-of 50% increase in available funds.

But there is reason to be wary of such a sharp increase as well, for we must be that much more careful not to elide scientific research with the pursuit of commercial inventions. It may be that the boundary between (pure) science and (applied) technology has been largely erased by biotechnology, if it ever existed at all. But this is not reason to deny the substantive normative and legal differences between the production of scientific knowledge and the production of science-related intellectual property. Despite their increasing interconnection, placing economic concerns over scientific ones has clear and severe consequences for scientific progress: confidentiality agreements that limit the spread of vital information, and outside influences on the nature, direction and results of research.

Thus, to actively define scientific research as the infrastructure behind the economic growth of the United States – as increasingly accurate as that characterization may be – risks burdening that research with economic expectations that it would otherwise avoid. Profits within the current system depend strongly on patents and the paradoxical drawbacks they entail. As the economic aspects of scientific progress become more clearly central to the economy of the United States, therefore, we need to be clearer about the nature of scientific knowledge and the manner in which it gets transferred into commercial products.

*Nico Stehr's Knowledge Politics, p. 177


  1. whoa

    do not stop posting these, 6.54. you said its part of a larger project- feel like sharing any more of it?

  2. That's crazy stuff.

    It hadn't occurred to me that these issues would be impacted by the stimulus and its goals.

  3. Sure thing. The paper's in a bit of a sensitive place at the moment, and that's the most current-events-y piece that's likely to make it in. But I'll gladly write more about this if you're interested.