Do patents inhibit research?

A newly published paper by Fiona Murray, Philippe Aghion, Mathias Dewatripont, Julian Kolev, and Scott Stern asks whether patents inhibit researchers from exploring new directions for their research. The American Economic Association published a research highlight post today explaining the methods and conclusions of the paper.

Here is a quick summary: data and research tools in the sciences are increasingly covered by patents, making it costly or impossible for researchers who did not develop a set of data or a set of tools for analyzing data in their field to use these data or tools. In cancer research, many studies are conducted using genetically engineered mice. DuPont had patents on two methods for the genetic engineering mice, patents which it agreed to open up to researcher at a much lower cost than before, in two Memoranda of Understanding with the NIH in 1998 and 1999. A third method was not included in these agreements and remained as costly as it had been for researchers to access. This set up a natural experiment.

The result: mice covered by the DuPont-NIH agreements were involved in more research exploring new directions than mice that were not so covered. The authors of the paper found good ways to use citation and keyword data to capture this effect. Quoting from the research highlight post, we get to the crux of their findings:

The authors find clear evidence that the patents protecting Cre-lox and Onco limited the scope of scientific inquiry by genetics researchers, but the best policy for reducing this type of harm isn’t clear.

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