“The myth is that IP rights are as important as our rights in castles, cars and corn oil. IP is supposedly intended to encourage inventors and the investment needed to bring their products to the clinic and marketplace. In reality, patents often suppress invention rather than promote it: drugs are “evergreened” when patents are on the verge of running out – companies buy up the patents of potential rivals in order to prevent them being turned into products. Moreover, the prices charged, especially for pharmaceuticals, are often grossly in excess of those required to cover costs and make reasonable profits.
IP rights are beginning to permeate every area of scientific endeavour. Even in universities, science and innovation, which have already been paid for out of the public purse, are privatised and resold to the public via patents acquired by commercial interests. The drive to commercialise science has overtaken not only applied research but also “blue-skies” research, such that even the pure quest for knowledge is subverted by the need for profit.
For example, it is estimated that some 20% of individual human genes have been patented already or have been filed for patenting. As a result, research on certain genes is largely restricted to the companies that hold the patents, and tests involving them are marketed at prohibitive prices. We believe that this poses a very real danger to the development of science for the public good.
The fruits of science and innovation have nourished our society and economy for years, but nations unable to navigate our regulatory system are often excluded, as are vulnerable individuals. We need to consider how to balance the needs of science as an industry with the plight of those who desperately need the products of science.
Clearly it is vitally important that we continue to protect science and enable it to flourish. Science and the many benefits that science has produced have played a crucial part in our history and produced vast improvements to human welfare. It would be remiss if we failed to recognise the importance of science as an industry and investment in research to national and regional economic development; but against these economic concerns (individual, corporate and national) an overriding consideration must be the interests of the public and of humanity present and future. Science as an industry may be booming, but the benefits of science need to be more efficiently and more cheaply placed in the service of the public.
This is of particular concern in the developing world, where drugs that are routinely available in high-income countries are unaffordable or inaccessible, and treatments for diseases of the poor are simply not being developed due to lack of a viable market. Existing inequities in knowledge capital make developing nations hostage to more technologically advanced countries for their basic health and development needs, and restrict the participation in research that would allow them to redress this imbalance.
For science to continue to flourish, it is necessary that the knowledge it generates be made freely and widely available. IP rights have the tendency to stifle access to knowledge and the free exchange of ideas that is essential to science. So, far from stimulating innovation and the dissemination of the benefits of science, IP all too often hampers scientific progress and restricts access to its products.”