June 24, 2011

4) Science and Public Value

A friend of mine asked about my last post on the "co-production" of knowledge, "who then 'owns' the research or is it always a public resource after co-production?”

Great question, and one that scholars have been struggling with especially in light of patents on genes and other biotechnology, such as genetically modified foods. This is generally referred to as "intellectual property" or "intellectual property rights" (IPR). Patents are supposed to protect the inventor and fuel innovation, but the case lately has been an increasingly convoluted fight over patent law, with "patent sharks" prowling for unclaimed discoveries that they can later sue companies for using. The figure below demonstrates some of the craziness in just smart phones:

But what happens when a drug company asks an indigenous tribe about their medicinal plants, and then goes on to patent and produce the medicinal compound? Or when patients donate their DNA to a study, only to be charged later for a test or treatment because a biotech company has patented the blueprint of the gene that causes cancer? Who should "own" that knowledge?

These are questions that modern governments are dealing with for the first time due to technological advances. Public research organizations are dealing with them as well: for example, the public agricultural research system that is largely responsible for last century's "Green Revolution" now must be more cautious about what agricultural technologies they can use, because of all the patents. Richard Jefferson is someone who understands this problem and is creating innovative solutions that benefit poor countries. He started a company that promotes "open source biology" by patenting discoveries in agricultural science, but then making those discoveries public. Some excerpts from this paper:
Most critically, we must democratize these abilities, both to measure and to respond, in order to diversify agro-ecosystems and environments and decentralize the problem-solving capability. We will achieve this by fostering scientific method and harnessing local knowledge and commitment in communities that have previously been ignored or treated as passive recipients of help. (p. 38)

At the start of the twenty-first century, science is at a critical juncture. Four centuries of inquiry, discovery, and invention have created a base of knowledge that has the potential to provide people everywhere, in all circumstances, with nourishment, improved health, and longer life. But the institutional mechanisms that ostensibly exist to encourage the application of science to practical problems are today hindering that very process. The norms that have evolved around gate-keeping have created new clergy, new impediments and new inefficiencies. Without a systemic change, science’s promise will not be available for those who most need it, and the promise of a truly diverse, robust and fair innovation culture may elude us. (p. 40)

This all boils down to a question of science and the public good. The "social contract of science" is an unspoken agreement that science, in the end, will produce public good. As the environmental movement often points out, science sometimes produces public bads. Or it doesn't produce the hoped-for goods. For example, “there are 6000 patents that invoke ‘plant breeding’ and ‘drought resistance’ yet none of them has yet resulted in an improved commercial variety” (Clark et al., p. 10). Agricultural extension programs do unique boundary work that is affected by both private and public interests. The private sector is crucial to developing new, useful technologies for farmers. Agricultural research institutions must increasingly embrace their role as a mediator between the private realm of gene patents and their goal of developing agricultural technologies for the public good.

More broadly, many of my colleagues at ASU's Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes are working on this issue of science and public value. A recent issue of the journal Minerva featured their work, and a short review is available here. Also, this very-readable report by a British think-tank called Demos takes a Science & Technology Studies perspective on this topic. They tackle head-on provocative questions that I've been exploring throughout this blog:
Science has major social benefits and thus ‘public value’. Yet crucially, as recent controversies have underlined, this value cannot be assumed and taken as automatic, no matter what scientific research is done, or under what conditions. We need therefore to shift from noun to adjective, by asking not only: what is the public value of science? But also, what would public value science look like? (p. 29)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.