Choice Patents

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Patent, Commercialization, Academia, University, Collaboration, Research Diversity, Evidence, Patent Canalyzation, Tragedy of the Anticommons


Empirical contributions to the debate over the commercialization of the life sciences are as rich in detail as they are diverse in approach and conclusions. Citation-based analyses of the genetics literature suggest that patenting undermines knowledge use. Survey research meanwhile supports the intuition that university scientists are unhindered day-to-day by patent rights. Material transfer agreements and other forms of intellectual property contracting are, rather, what appear to slow progress. Other qualitative data imply that our understanding of the role that institutional contexts, funding imperatives, professional hierarchies, and norms of scientific competition play is inadequate. The hypothesis motivating many of these investigations, the "tragedy of the anticommons," coupled with the ongoing controversy over gene patents undermining access at the point of patient care, has generated litigation against patent-holders such as Myriad Genetics Inc., opened new areas of empirical inquiry, and begun to reveal the complexity of commercializing scientific pursuits.

In addition to summarizing the strengths and limitations of this evolving body of empirical work, the contribution I make to the debate over commercialization in the life sciences is twofold. First, I theorize a novel trade-off of academic entrepreneurialism. I term this trade-off "patent canalyzation" and posit that, by virtue of participating in the commercialization of their work, academic scientists become more insular in terms of who they collaborate with and more entrenched in their chosen line of research inquiry. Patent canalyzation theory thus draws attention to potential costs as well as potential benefits associated with patenting that are not captured by the anticommons hypothesis. Second, I develop a novel methodology to empirically test for patent canalyzation amongst leading scientists in the field of cancer "epigenetics." Specifically, I track (1) co-authoring relationships and (2) the diversity of lines of research inquiry across each scientist’s publication record in order to discern which, if any, intervening patenting "events" account for significant changes in those two types of variables. In a sample of fifty-two academic scientists, there is a negative relationship between applying for a patent and four measures of scientific collaboration and research diversity. The duration and magnitude of those negative effects depend upon the frequency with which a scientist applies for patents as well as his or her cumulative years of academic experience, and can be moderated by elevated publication output or partially negated by receipt of a patent grant. The results support and nuance patent canalyzation theory, motivating a series of questions around intellectual property policy, academic autonomy, and the task of commercializing epigenetic biomarkers currently shared by academic and company labs