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US Universities' Patent Policies Retard Plant Biology Research, Survey Suggests


The proliferation of patenting by US universities has resulted in a greater number of university administrators requiring material transfer agreements for research tool exchanges, which in turn has hindered scientific research, according to results of a recent survey of agricultural biologists.

In addition, the researchers behind the survey suggest that agreements between universities designed to limit patenting of widely used academic research tools or encourage IP sharing could remedy the situation.

The results of the survey, launched in 2005 by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, appear in the January issue of Nature Biotechnology.

Brian Wright, corresponding author of the article and a professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, told BTW this week that over the course of his own interactions with plant biologists at UC Berkeley, he had heard many anecdotes about how IP restrictions had hampered their research.

Wright, who said he has been interested in IP issues for many years, also said that his colleague and study co-author Zhen Lei, a PhD candidate in the ARE department at UC Berkeley, had recently written a term paper discussing the results of a similar, but smaller, survey of molecular and cell biologists.

That paper spurred Wright and Zheng to team up with Rakhi Juneja, a licensing associate in the tech-transfer office at UA, to conduct a similar survey of a more "well-defined" group of plant biologists.

"We made sure to ask them directly whether IP is hindering or helping [them]," Wright said. "Surprisingly, no one had ever asked them that question."

In 2005, the researchers surveyed all listed faculty in departments related to agricultural biology at four land-grant institutions: UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Riverside, and UA.

The survey administrators collected 93 responses for a 25-percent gross response rate. Eighty-five of those respondents provided what the survey authors called "useful" responses.

A comparison of PubMed publications and patents of non-respondents and respondents in a random sample of 80 faculty members gave no grounds for suspecting non-responsive bias, according to the study.

The survey asked questions about participants' research activities, patenting activities, and research tool exchange experiences in the past; as well as questions designed to gauge the participants' feelings about the overall impact of patenting, intellectual property, and MTAs on the progress of scientific research.

The researchers posed questions about the research, patenting, and research material exchange activities of the participants in the five-year period preceding the survey. They found that, in general, the scientists surveyed were "well-qualified to report on the relevant issues" as many had conducted both industry-related and purely academic research, had patented inventions, or had shared research materials at a similar rate to that reported in several other published studies of academic research activities.

Survey data revealed that despite the fact that MTAs have become standard university policy when research materials are exchanged, "many researchers willingly ignore such requirements," Wright and colleagues wrote.

Indeed, the data showed that formal agreements covered only 21 percent of cases where respondents provided tools to other academics. Further, just one-third of those who provided tools to academic peers used any MTAs at all; and even the 22 out of 83 respondents who sent tools to industry often did so without formal agreements.

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When surveyed about receiving tools, on the other hand, respondents reported formal agreements in 48 percent of academic exchanges and in a majority of industry exchanges. The authors conceded that they are unsure of why respondents reported the use of MTA agreements more often when receiving than when providing research tools.

"Most of these people were bench scientists, and their motivation was to publish articles," Wright told BTW. "Most of them didn't even check prior art, and they're not worried about infringing anything."

This attitude seems to be directly at odds with university administrators, who in general require MTAs either because they anticipate potential commercialization of inventions and want to protect their IP; or, they want to protect themselves from being sued for infringement.

"The university is worried about it because they say, 'Well, if your stuff is good, and can potentially be commercialized, then we have to worry about it,'" Wright said. "All of these technologies are basically directed toward some useful outcome that might be valuable. When you get something that succeeds, if you're doing basic research and infringing some patents, no one is going to sue you. But if you're making money off of it," infringement becomes a legitimate concern for the institution, Wright said.

The survey also asked researchers about their feelings on how IP issues in general affect research activities. According to Wright, he and his co-authors also posed these questions in both a "positive and negative" manner in an effort to reduce bias.

"It turns out the responses were almost symmetrical, so there didn't seem to be much bias," Wright told BTW this week. "Also, we looked to see if people who had their own patents would have bias, and those people didn't have any difference in describing how the system is working."

The survey revealed that most respondents feel that IP rights on research tools impede research – but not because of the worry of infringement.

"How can scientists so unconcerned with infringement see IP rights as an impediment to research?" the authors wrote. "The answer is that they associate problems of IP rights with problems with MTAs."

Essentially, Wright explained, "we dug into what problems they were having, and they mostly dealt with delays" in exchanging research tools, and thus delays in research activities caused by institution-mandated MTAs.

Wright and colleagues also conducted in-depth interviews with 17 scientists who had encountered one or more problems with material transfers. They published excerpts from 11 of these interviews as supporting material to the Nature Biotechnology article.

"The interesting thing was, only one [interviewee] thought that the other researcher that they asked the materials for were part of the problem," Wright told BTW. "Most of them thought that the institution was the problem. Many of them think that the less-sophisticated tech-transfer offices think there is a goldmine out there and they want to make money," but in reality many of them just want to protect their liability, he added.

So what is the solution to this disconnect between researchers and university tech-transfer administrators? According to Wright, either academic scientists need to become more aware of IP sensitivities when conducting their research; or tech-transfer offices need to take a more laissez-faire approach to their scientists sharing internally developed research tools.

"Either one," Wright said. "Most tech-transfer offices don't make a lot of money anyway. The ones that don't might be better off not thinking they are going to and not interfering with the research process. It would also help if the US patent office didn't issue so many dubious patents. The proliferation of patents is another big issue."

The authors concluded in their survey that academic research exemptions will not necessarily discourage universities from insisting upon MTAs. However, "agreements between universities and other non-profit institutions to discourage patenting of research tools used mainly by scientists, or to foster sharing or proprietary technology, could improve access to needed research tools and increase productivity," the authors wrote.

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The study pointed to initiatives already underway in this vein, such as the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, or PIPRA, project, a collaborative of research institutions, government entities, and companies seeking to "improve agriculture in emerging economies by decreasing IP barriers and increasing tech transfer," according to PIPRA's website.

Another is the Biological Open Source, or BiOS, initiative, created by the international non-profit institute Cambia to develop "new innovation ecosystems for disadvantaged communities," according to its website.

Wright said that he and the study co-authors will continue to examine the perceived effects of IP on researchers conducting projects in the area of biofuel technologies, and should have plenty of local fodder following the agreement signed in 2007 between UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, and British energy firm BP to establish a $500 million joint Energy Biosciences Institute on the UC-Berkeley campus (see BTW, 11/19/2007).

Wright said that he and his colleagues will also be conducting research on methods for evaluating patent applications submitted by academic institutions.