Universities need to ditch patents

Here’s my take on the patent issue: Open science needs open research sharing.



I have had a front row seat to this unfortunate state of affairs. I worked in one of the 5% of labs (synthetic biology) where the research was being commercialized/patented (the professor I worked for simultaneously was the chairman of a biotech company based on the academic research being conducted in the lab).

Earlier this year I had a few discussions with others at my university about how ridiculous the whole thing seemed. Staff, and graduate students are made to sign a piece of paper outlining potential conflicts of interest…and then…well that’s it. No oversight, no actual inquiry into whether or not the PI is behaving in a way that demonstrates a conflict of interest. But that is actually besides the point–bioengineering professors are expected to commercialize their research, and so the idea that oversight at the institutional level would be effective is, in my opinion, laughable.

What really bothered me was that universities are allowed to hold patents on research outcomes that have been made with public funds. Your discussion of Bayh-Dole was illuminating. I did not know the history surrounding the legalities of the universities’ ability to patent research. The way I explained it earlier this year was by using a comparison to a tech or pharma company: If a pharma company pays for basic research, does it give away its patent rights to the entity contractually performing the research? Why should the public give away its patent rights to universities? As many have noted, they now behave mostly as any other for profit enterprise, regardless of their official 501c3 status. What we have now is largely a public IP gifting system benefiting knowledge gatekeepers.

I like the idea of policy/legal solutions, we do need to get very serious about this. I would be for a system where the government held the patent rights and non-exclusively licensed them for a percentage of future economic value. I also like the idea of institutions voluntarily opting in to a free patent licensing system of some kind (where economic gains of patents are expressly fed back in portion to the public). I could see this as a way smaller, independent labs could offer much more value to the public than what is currently being offered by universities.


The research enterprise blog is really well done. I agree with you, universities can do policies to not patent their work… it just (just…:slight_smile: ) takes cultural work to get to this.

After having looked into the research patenting issue from a few directions I think that this piece is the most convincing call to avoid University patents that I’ve seen (although I guess I was somewhat primed to receive the message). This seems to be key:

You might work in one of very few select sub-disciplines (usually within bio-medical or IT research) at one of the few universities where university patents have had some historical financial returns. But for the other ninety-five percent of science, and for the academy as a whole, the value of sharing research far exceeds whatever near-term monetized return might be available.

Most of the academic and trade literature I’ve read seems to promote patenting for all of science but I suspect it comes from people who are working in, or want to be working in, the minority of sub-disciplines that might benefit from patents. I’d be really interested in seeing a comparative survey of patenting opinions and practices across all academic disciplines.

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folks, i think mariana mazzucato has a movement on this. or the entire ‘stakeholder capitalism’ movement. let me find it. :slight_smile:

you could check these out related to mm:

related to sc:

also check out the recent nyt reevaluation of milton friedman’s legacy:


I’ve often wondered about cases studies on how much value is lost or gained by patenting different technologies. These working notes from Ben Reinhardt start to get at that. Despite having a recent background in start-up acceleration, he seems very sympathetic to the idea that IP protection isn’t always the right way.

Aside, I really like the format used for these working notes, kind of a personal mini-Wikipedia. Does anybody know what tool is used to create that?

Thanks for the link!

Gerald Barnett has been on a tearful month about how universities can do much better tech transfer than exclusive patent licenses: https://researchenterprise.org/

And… it is a nice format… wonder how he does it.