Does Science Want To Be Free?

The patent dispute over CRISPR gene editing technology speaks to a bigger question: Should publicly funded science be free?

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CRISPR gene editing technology can target any gene, either in a dish or in a living organism, and edit it with pinpoint precision, allowing researchers to systematically alter genes or turn them on or off. It is simple enough that it can be used in any modern lab, and has potential to probe and treat any disease with a genetic basis, from cancer to HIV/AIDS. Open science advocates want CRISPR to be free, arguing that the decision could set the pace of advancement.

Amidst the ongoing multi-billion dollar dispute over the patent rights to CRISPR, there is a greater debate for the academic science community: should publicly funded science be free?

How can patents help bring breakthroughs to market?

There is no doubt that there is pressure for universities to patent their discoveries. The original reason that universities patented their discoveries was not to generate revenue, but to generate interest. In a way, you can think of a patent as a publication: a clear public statement of the innovation, and exactly what makes it new and useful. Any income from the patent goes back into funding more research.

A patent can also provide incentives for companies to invest in a technology, knowing that they will have several years of exclusive rights after putting time and money into development and clinical trials. In this way, patents are designed to drive innovation by protecting the people behind it.

How can open science help accelerate the pace of development?

In the case of CRISPR, the technology’s potential was so clear that it was immediately picked up by other labs worldwide. No patent was needed to help bring exposure to the invention, and the patent rights have only brought uncertainty to the community over whether their research can continue once the dispute has been settled. All commercialization is also on hold.

There are many instances of success in open science in Canadian history. Nobel prize winners Frederick G. Banting and John Macleod famously gave away their patent rights to insulin to the University of Toronto. Eli Lilly quickly began production to supply all of North America soon thereafter.

How should public policy respond?

The interplay between innovation, commercialization, and economics is complex. It may seem counterintuitive, but overly generous protections for innovators can block future progress. However, without patent rights, some great inventions might never make it to market.

To address these issues, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University launched an experiment to test whether an open science policy will make Montreal into a research hub. They realized that very few of their patents were generating income in the long term, and decided to make all their data and materials freely available and unpatented for five years. They will then track whether this incentive attracted more private partnerships with the institute, or drew more related companies to the region.

With systematic case studies like this in mind, public and institutional policies can adapt to make the best decisions for continued progress in publicly funded research.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.