1. Owning the Future: The Green-back Revolution - TechReview
2. Maintaining the integrity of the scientific record - BMJ
3. University accused of violating academic freedom to safeguard funding - BMJ
4. Public sector plant breeding in a privatizing world - USDA
1. Owning the Future: The Green-back Revolution
By Seth Shulman
Bona fide or not, concerns about the safety of genetically modified crops have been grabbing headlines. But a far bigger story looms in agricultural biotechnology: that of an industry choking on its own patent claims. For a powerful example, consider recent patent activity at Monsanto.
First, the company won a patent number 6,174,724 - for those keeping score - that covers a seminal technology in transgenic plant research: the use of antibiotic-resistant genes as markers. It works like this: when researchers want to insert new genes into plant cells, say to create a drought-tolerant crop variety, they couple these ingoing genes with such a genetic marker. By then exposing the target cells to antibiotics to see if they die (they don't if things got to the right place), scientists can easily test whether the gene transfer was a success.
There is probably no one in transgenic plant research who doesn't make use of this technique. But now, thanks to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's woeful ineptitude, they will all have to beg permission from Monsanto to use this fundamental technology, not to mention pay any royalties the firm sets.
Amazingly, however, an even worse intellectual-property nightmare is brewing. A pending Monsanto patent claims exclusive rights to a pivotal, widely used germ called Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This was the very first Trojan horse that scientists employed to sneak foreign genes into plants way back in 1983. And if Monsanto wins exclusive control over it, the field will be rocked even harder.
The real tragedy here is that both these patents (one granted, one pending) would confer monopolies on technologies that fall way too far upstream of the market to deserve patent protection. As many scholars have noted, patents are supposed to be a compact between the public and the inventor: in exchange for allowing the inventor a limited monopoly, the public gets access to a new product. But in these cases, there is no new product.
Instead, Monsanto has essentially grabbed a piece of the ag biotech "infostructure" - claiming exclusive rights to a technological technique that everyone in the field needs to compete.
The problem is even worse in the Agrobacterium case. This patent was filed nearly two decades ago but has been tied up in a purgatory called "interference." With four competing research teams claiming to have invented essentially the same thing, the tortuous case has already taken a mind-numbing 18 years to adjudicate, with, not one, but two administrative-law judges retiring during the process!
Thankfully, new rules will prevent the worst excesses of such situations by starting a patent's life when an application is filed. But under the rules operating in this case (and all pre-1995 filings), the clock doesn't start until a patent is granted. Which means that Monsanto is poised to walk away with a spanking-new, 17-year monopoly on a technology that has long since become indispensable.
Which leads me to another gripe: the private capture of public investment. Several teams that developed this powerful technology included academic researchers operating partly on government grants. In a collegial spirit, these scientists freely passed valuable findings to Monsanto, which is now turning them into an exclusive claim.
The full story is chronicled with great insight by Daniel Charles in Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money and the Future of Food. The book has a lot more on its mind than Agrobacterium tumefaciens, as Charles examines the outsized ambitions that characterize the whole ag biotech industry. But to my eye, if Monsanto succeeds in patenting the use of this germ, it will go down as a classic tale of a collaborative scientific endeavor perverted by a capricious, winner-take-all patent system.
The problems extend far beyond two bad patents. In fact, so many overly broad patents have issued in agricultural biotechnology that the entire field will likely suffer. With tremendous consolidation in recent years, warring fiefdoms of technological know-how have emerged. Firms like Monsanto use their patents to squelch competitors and leverage control of technology in the pipeline. Researchers are becoming so hamstrung by proprietary claims to key conceptual tools - sometimes shut out from using them entirely - that it is becoming ever harder to bring new inventions to market.
This is bad enough in the commercial sector. But the tangle of exclusive claims on basic research is also smothering public-sector researchers who, just a generation ago, launched the Green Revolution to bring high-yield crop varieties to the famine-plagued developing world. That revolution was spawned not only by new technology but by a commitment to use new seed varieties as building blocks to breed even better varieties in the future.
With proprietary claims like Monsanto's, we're tilling a far less fertile field. Maybe we should call it the Greenback Revolution.
Seth Shulman is a freelance writer and author of the recent book 'Owning the Future'
2. Maintaining the integrity of the scientific record
Editors make a move
BMJ 2001;323:588 ( 15 September ) [shortened]
We editors of medical journals worry that we sometimes publish studies where the declared authors have not participated in the design of the study, had no access to the raw data, and had little to do with the interpretation of the data. Instead the sponsors of the study often pharmaceutical companieshave designed the study and analysed and interpreted the data. Readers and editors are thus being deceived.
Editors are also concerned that the declared authors might not have ultimate control over whether their studies are published. That decision may rest with the funders of the researchperhaps a government department or a pharmaceutical companywhich could mean that results unfavourable to the funders are suppressed. This distorts the scientific record and again deceives readers, allowing them to read only favourable results. Editors have taken steps to counter the problem by revising the uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, and changing editorial practices.
It's hard to know how often such problems arise, but they occur against a background of increased entanglement of academia with industry.1-5 ....
Richard Smith, editor.
1. Angell M. Is academic medicine for sale? N Engl J Med 2000; 342: 1516-1518 http://bmj.com/cgi/ijlink?linkType=FULL&journalCode=nejm&resid=342/20/1516
2.Bodenheimer T. Uneasy allianceclinical investigators and the pharamecutical industry. N Engl J Med 2000; 342: 1284-1286[ http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/342/17/1284?ijkey=n/QB6lnvCzErw
3.Bero LA, Rennie D. Influences on the quality of published drug studies. Int J Technol Assess Health Care 1996; 12: 209-237 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=retrieve&db=pubmed&list_uids=8707496&dopt=Abstract
4. Rennie D. Thyroid storm. JAMA 1997; 277: 1238-1243[Medline]. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=retrieve&db=pubmed&list_uids=9103350&dopt=Abstract
5. Boyd EA, Bero LA. Assessing faculty financial relationships with industry: a case study. JAMA 2000; 284: 2209-2214 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=retrieve&db=pubmed&list_uids=11056592&dopt=Abstract
3. University accused of violating academic freedom to safeguard funding from drug companies [shortened]
Owen Dyer, London
BMJ 2001;323:591 ( 15 September )
An international group of renowned scientists has accused Canada's largest university of violating academic freedom for fear of losing research funds from drug companies when it revoked a job offer to an outspoken British psychiatrist.
A letter to the University of Toronto signed by 27 leading scientists, including two Nobel laureates of medicine, said the decision to rescind a professorship offered to Dr David Healy, who currently works at the University of Wales at Bangor, has "besmirched" the name of the University of Torontoand "poisoned the reputation" of its Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Dr Arvid Carlsson, this year's winner of the Nobel prize in medicine, and Dr Julius Axelrod, the 1970 winner, were among those who branded the affair "an affront to the standards of free speech and academic freedom."
...Academics have been speculating that the real reason for the withdrawal of the job offer might be the fear that the centre's major pharmaceutical sponsors, which include Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of fluoxetine, would pull out their research dollars if the centre hired someone who expressed negative views about their products. The clinic that Dr Healy was to run drew an unusually high proportion of its research budget 52% last yearfrom pharmaceutical companies, and Eli Lilly was one of the major contributors. The university denies that this was a factor.
4. Public sector plant breeding in a privatizing world
Farm News from Cropchoice: http://www.cropchoice.com
The following is the first part of the abstract of a paper by Paul W. Heisey, Chittur S. Srinivasan, and Colin G. Thirtle of the USDA Economic Research Service.
Abstract: Intellectual property protection, globalization, and pressure on public budgets in many industrialized countries have shifted the balance of plant breeding activity from the public to the private sector.
Several economic factors influence the relative shares of public versus private sector plant breeding activity, with varying results over time, over country, and over crop.
The private sector, for example, dominates corn breeding throughout the industrialized world, but public and private activities in wheat breeding differ widely in Western Europe, different regions of the United States, Canada, and Australia. Public sector involvement in plant breeding may have benefits to society that the private sector's activities may not, fostering greater sharing of information and more work on traits of plant varieties (such as environmental suitability and nutritional characteristics) that may be under-researched by private breeding programs.
For the full paper, visit: http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib772/aib772.pdf