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Monday, April 26, 2004


Commercialization of science comes at a cost

NEW YORK -- The 18th-century American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin declined to claim a patent on the stove he invented. His reason was simple: If whatever he devised made people a little more comfortable during the winter, he'd be content.

This story came back to me recently when I read that a strong skepticism about equating scientific discoveries with monetary gain prevailed in America academia until only a few decades ago.

So Jacques Loeb (1859-1924), the German physiologist described as "an iconoclastic tour de force," predicted when he was at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research: "If the institutions of pure science go into the handling of patents, I am afraid pure science will be doomed."

Obviously following the same reasoning, Johns Hopkins University rejected Thornton Brailsford Robertson (1884-1930) as a candidate for a chair in its physiology department because he had sought a patent for Tethelin, which he discovered. His explanation that he had done so to prevent his discovery from falling into corporate hands wasn't good enough for Johns Hopkins.

With Robertson, indeed, there is a remarkable document you can readily read on the Internet: a "Tethelin agreement" between him and the Board of Regents of the University of California, dated Sept. 7, 1917. In it, Robertson was made to grant to the university "the said preparation, patents and trade name, and all his rights as the discoverer of said preparation and the owner thereof and of said patents and trade name." An accompanying report describes Tethelin as a "growth-promoting substance . . . which promises to be of great value in causing wounds to heal or shattered bones to knit."

Funding organizations took a similar attitude. The Rockefeller Foundation admonished Herbert McLean Evans (1882-1971) that it would stop giving him money if he tried to gain financially by patenting any discovery made with it. The distinguished anatomist at the University of California discovered, among other things, vitamin E, in 1923.

Biochemist Harry Steenbock (1886-1967), who found a method of enriching food with vitamin D, donated the patents for that and other discoveries to create a research foundation at the University of Wisconsin. The royalties from his patents are said to have been exceptionally lucrative.

I have learned the names of Loeb, Robertson, Evans and Steenbock from "Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education" by Derek Bok (Princeton University Press, 2003). A warning against the quickly expanding influence of money on academia, the book refers to other prominent scientists. But I have selected only some in the biomedical field because it is in this field that pecuniary interests are creating particularly detrimental effects -- the very dangers that the chemist Frederick Gardner Cottrell (1877-1948) foresaw as early as 1912: "growing commercialism" and "an accompanying tendency in secrecy in scientific work."

What has played the pivotal role in bringing about the sea change is the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Innocuously titled "The Patent and Trademark Amendments Act," it sought to encourage "technology transfer" from academic labs to industries. In retrospect, this legislated policy shift may strike some as a step long overdue even as one taken a quarter of a century ago. In today's super-commercialized world, high-minded pronouncements such as the one by Loeb sound definitely quaint, and the kinds of action that Johns Hopkins and the University of California took with Robertson appear unreasonably restrictive.

And in certain ways Congress has been "vindicated" in accepting the argument that "the prospect of earning royalties would make universities work harder to identify commercially promising discoveries in their laboratories," as Bok points out. He was president of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991. One can also be persuaded that the simple ivory-tower urge to "discover truth" or "the pure love of discovery" had led to many an instance of research that was aimless.

Also, if professors in humanities can make money writing textbooks, for example, why not those in basic research? I know a couple at the University of Connecticut who have become millionaires by compiling a literary anthology.

Still, the old-style academic concerns seem to have been justified. The questions come down to two dichotomies. One is public vs. private. Here, the question is: Should publicly funded research be allowed to produce private gains?

The other is open vs. closed science. As Cottrell foresaw, when monetary gain comes into the picture, secrecy is inevitable. Cottrell knew what he was talking about. He did his first important work for a private company, DuPont, and knew that "a certain minimum protection" would be indispensable for any manufacturer "to put a new invention on the market." Still, he foresaw conflict and created Research Corporation, which exists to this day. It is a "philanthropic" intermediary between academic inventors and commercial users of their inventions.

Japan needs to be particularly alert to these conflicts that have become apparent in America in recent years. One consequence of its decade-long economic difficulties has been the wholesale adoption of the American catchword "accountability," which, translated as seika-shugi or "resultism," seems to have affected all enterprises, academic research included. In addition, the country is single-mindedly pursuing biotech as the next industry of growth, and that is where pecuniary corruption has become most acute in the United States.

One irony here is that the Bayh-Dole Act was partly motivated by America's frustration with Japan's emergence as a scientific power. U.S. Sen. Bob Dole opened the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the bill, in 1979, by saying: "The damaging impact of the Federal patent policy on the economy is dramatic. That we have lost our leadership role to Japan in the fields of electronics and shipbuilding is no accident." This is a bit of history that professor Bhaven Sampat, of the Georgia Institute of Technology, gives us in his oddly titled paper posted on the Internet: "Private Parts: Patents and Academic Research in the Twentieth Century."

I must not forget to add that Franklin's refusal to patent his stove for the public good may be nothing more than my wishful thinking. Though I had fondly remembered the story ever since I read it many years ago, I recently learned that his device was fatally flawed. For all his considerable power of observation, he failed to notice that smoke rose and made the vent at the bottom of the cast-iron pot. What is commonly known as the Franklin stove, which is fitted with a venting pipe, was actually an invention of David Rittenhouse, and by the 1790s it was called the Rittenhouse stove.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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