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The Misconception About Scientific Research

05/14/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 07/14/2013 05:12 EDT
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Professional female Hispanic scientist with microscope in laboratory

Over the past 30 years that I have worked as a researcher in academic institutions, I have received millions of dollars in public and private funding. Yet, I hold no patent, I have not started a company and I cannot point to any commercial product that has emerged from my laboratory. The federal government, given their current push to align scientific funding with industry aims via the National Research Council (NRC), may look at this as an irresponsible waste of time and resources -- I beg to differ.

The notion of focusing on "commercialization" of scientific enterprise is based on a fundamental misconception of how science works. This misconception is largely based on confusing the role and motivation of the scientist with that of the inventor.

While the scientist is primarily motivated by the desire to understand how things work, inventors are driven by the desire to make things work. While the latter lends itself to patents and commercialization, the former does not. Yet, without the former, there is nothing for the inventor to patent or commercialize.

Let me explain: The discovery of electricity and how it works is the work of scientists -- harnessing this knowledge to create the light bulb (or your iPhone) is the job of inventors. Both have significant importance, but the roles are fundamentally different.

Understanding why some people get high blood pressure and how this leads to strokes and heart attacks is the work of scientists -- developing an instrument to measure blood pressure or a drug to lower pressure is the work of inventors.

Not only does discovery science generally not lend itself to patents, but protecting scientific discovery with patents will in fact stifle the very commercialization it is meant to promote.

Scientific discovery or understanding how things work should necessarily be public information. It should not be protected by patents nor should it play out behind closed doors.

In contrast, inventions (based on ideas that emerge from scientific discovery) deserve patents and protection to ensure returns on commercialization.

Funding the scientific discovery is in the public interest because it creates the knowledge base that allows industry to invent and commercialize products that drive economic growth. In itself, however, scientific discovery does not (nor should it) be the object of patents or commercialization.

When a scientist discovers a new molecule that promotes the growth of cancer cells, it opens the field to the pharmaceutical industry to manipulate this molecule to create a new cancer drug that can be protected by patents and lead to commercial revenue for whichever company comes up with the best product to do so.

For this to happen, it is in fact essential that the discovery of the new molecule itself is not subject to a patent or protection. Rather, it is the very fact that this new discovery is now common knowledge that allows all pharmaceutical companies to compete in trying to be the first to come up with a drug that works.

Patenting or otherwise protecting the discovery of that molecule, thereby allowing its use only by a company that funded part of the research or is willing to pay for a license, in fact, eliminates competition and can only stifle progress.

Thus, for scientific discovery to stimulate commercialization and economic growth it has to be open and available to anyone who wishes to use it to create a product that creates new jobs, new revenues and opens new markets. This is why paying for scientific discovery is in the public interest and a good use of tax-payers' money, whereas paying industry to make inventions is not.

This important difference is also reflected in how scientists and inventors differ in their approach to science. Discovery scientists pursue new knowledge and compete in being the first to publish scientific papers, in the process bringing new knowledge into the public domain. Inventors, work on using this new knowledge and compete to bring new products or services to market. The reward for the former is academic recognition and perhaps the Nobel prize -- the reward for the latter is a healthy bank account (only rarely do the two overlap).

While it makes good sense for governments to pay for scientific discovery, they should leave the funding and commercialization of products and services to the inventors in industry. This division of scientific enterprise has served us well in the past -- it would continue to serve us in the future.

Arya M. Sharma, MD, is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, Professor and Chair in Obesity at the University of Alberta and Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network.

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