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.

Open science: why is it so hard?

OK, I am becoming obsessed with Lemire’s blog. One more post from there now, and back to my own work I go. Incidentally, the book by Michael Nielsen discussed below is sitting in my queue of e-books I really should be reading yesterday. (Once again, I have snipped most of the text of the post, for which I strongly recommend that you visit the source.) And before I go, let me obey Lemire’s injunction and repeat: scholarship is not a publishing business.

Open science: why is it so hard?:



Thus, a much more significant vision is Nielsen’s open science. Michael Nielsen is arguing for a culture shift in science: from a science obsessed with individual performance (and publications) to a science culture resembling more that of open source software or wikipedia.

I fear however that despite all the (well deserved) press that Michael Nielsen’s latest book has been getting, too few people understand the importance of this shift. It is not about becoming hippies. It is not a socialist utopia. On the contrary, the system we have right now is akin to an highly regulated industry. All power is in the hands of the government and a few large organizations (universities, publishers) working in tandem. The barrier to entry is maintained artificially high. Open science is really about creating “open markets” with freer exchanges. It has the potential to boost our collective productivity by orders of magnitude through the removal of unneeded friction.


And we finally get a hint at why it is so hard it is to open up science: the business of science has become intertwined with businesses like the publishing business. ACM has to speak both as an association of computing professionals, and as a publishing house.

What should be a critical support service, the publication of results, ends up driving much of our culture. The journals become the science. The medium becomes the message.

In effect, we have too much organizational scarring tissue in science. It could be that we need to reboot the system. As a starting point, we should collectively recognize the problem. Repeat after me: scholarship is not a publishing business.

Further reading:


The ACM charges the authors of any conference for the publication of proceedings. However, they do not require payment for publishing in their journals: instead they request page charges.

Bacteria that channel Elinor Ostrom

This blog post, from Not Exactly Rocket Science, caught my attention. I blogged about it in my more general-audience blog. Here I want to elaborate a little bit on the connection with Elinor Ostrom’s work. Ostrom studies how various human societies have evolved mechanisms to manage common property resources. She shows how in many cases these mechanisms lead to much better outcomes for the users of the commons than what the plain old game theoretic foundation of the “tragedy of the commons” that we teach undergraduate students (and graduate students, too) leads us to believe. I like how the study of bacteria I started this post with shows the same idea operating via chemical signals and evolutionary pressures in populations of bacteria. Surely humans can continue to evolve useful mechanisms to manage their own common property resource problems better, if bacteria can. Note that the bacteria in this study did not have a uniformly good solution: only if the population of the colony gets large enough does the evolutionary advantage of cheaters evaporate. But it does evaporate, eventually.