Sunday, 24 August 2008

Who owns science?

illustrations of scienceFields of Science from Flickr/ImageEditor. Creative Commons licence.

In July two Nobel prize winners, Professor Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Sir John Sulston launched a debate on the commercialisation of science. Prof. Stiglitz is well known for his criticism of World bank and IMF policies. Prof. Sulston is firmly opposed to the privatisation of scientific information after keeping his own data on the human genome in the public domain.

dna moleculeImage of molecules from Wikipedia.

In an article in the New Scientist, Prof. Stiglitz outlines the current situation:

  • Rich corporations have exclusive rights to their intellectual property and the profits coming from them.
  • Access to affordable drugs is effectively denied to poor countries.
  • This amounts to a death sentence for poor countries which cannot afford their own research programmes, and who are denied access to the knowledge base.
  • Drugs are not developed for diseases which predominantly affect poor people.
  • Profit takes precedence over need.

The basic framework of the intellectual property regime aims to “close down access to knowledge” rather than allowing its dissemination,

He puts forward the idea of giving prizes paid for by industrialised nations, rather than patents for innovative cures and vaccines, with the largest prizes being given to those that will benefit the largest number of people. He doesn't suggest that innovation shouldn't be rewarded - it must be encouraged because it is at the heart of the success of a modern economy - but that the focus on profit at the expense of the developing world must be changed.

With modern tourism, some neglected diseases are now being imported to the developed world. According to a UCL report, there were about 10,000 cases of "imported malaria" in the 10 years up to 2006, with 1% being fatal, and this in spite of effective malaria prevention. So we may yet find that these so far neglected diseases making their way into developed nations, eventually driving further research which has been so sadly lacking so far.

ad for malaria awareness for tourists

By chance today I came across this ad today, for Malaria Hotspots, sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline. I wonder why?

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  1. As an author I of course do not agree with the professor that the producers of intellectual property should not be paid for their work and their contributions to the world. I am, of course, very happy that the professor is able to work without pay or sponsorship (same thing) to not only discover things to give away to the world, but to condemn those who must either do it for money or not do it at all. For example those terrible drug companies. I did wonder how accurate the professor's assertions of "facts" were with regard to the drug companies not giving away their products to poor countries, or rich countries not buying the drugs and giving them to poor countries. I also wonder what third world countries would do if given these intellectual property rights to use? How able are these countries to capitalize on that knowledge? Do you think they would suddenly start up their own drug manufacturing facilities and give away for free the drugs they produced? I can't help but wonder if the hope for a profit might have been the cause of some pretty nice inventions throughout history. Would you take away the incentive to invent and invest in invention? I wonder if someone could help me out with my poor muddled thinking here. Thank you.

  2. Max, thank you for taking the time to write such a long comment. It will be my pleasure to help you. Perhaps you would make me a coffee while I gather my thoughts? :)

    The professor didn't say there should be no reward. What he said was that the patent system is too prohibitive and stifles further research as well as penalises the third world. One of his points was that patents have been taken out on existing knowledge, for example basmati rice (which Indians think they have known about for hundreds of years) and on the healing properties of turmeric. Now nobody can do anything with them.

    He didn't condemn individuals who discover things and are paid for it. He condemns, if that is the right word, the overly-restrictive patenting system, and the profits made by drug companies. Many of the products in which they invest are what he calls "lifestyle" drugs which don't save lives. They are of no use in the third world but do bring in profit in the western world. He cites the over-prescription of anti-depressants as an example. At least a third of the world's population lacks essential, effective medicines, particularly for infectious diseases, such as HIV and malaria.

    It is not necessarily the third world that would make the drugs. There are already generic manufacturers in existence who make drugs when the 20 year patent has run out. They provide drugs at a fraction of the cost.

    There are various systems proposed to make sure research continues - the possibility of a prize system I mentioned in the post and other initiatives outlined in this Lancet article, such as the advanced market commitment and the affordable medicines facility.

    Does that help at all?

    and not a bullet point in sight.


Forethoughts, afterthoughts, any thoughts. Tell me.


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