How the patent system corrupts academic inquiry

Thoughtful piece in the NYT about the long-term impact of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 which aimed to use the patent system to promote “the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development” and “to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities.”

In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses.

Of course, there is precedent for scientific secrecy, notes Daniel S. Greenberg , author of “Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards and Delusions of Campus Capitalism” (University of Chicago Press, 2007). When James Watson and Francis Crick were homing in on DNA’s double-helix structure in the 1950s, they zealously guarded their work from prying eyes until they could publish their findings, to be certain that they would get the credit for making the discovery.

“They didn’t try to patent it,” Mr. Greenberg notes, “but somebody doing the same work today would certainly take a crack at patenting the double helix.”