The NIH must be ready to take firm action to protect access to the tools that are essential to a researcher's work.
Few issues are as frustrating to the contemporary researcher, particularly in the life sciences, as the time and effort spent negotiating the terms on which he or she can gain access to the research tools required to do an efficient job. In a less complex — perhaps slightly mythical — era, biological samples were exchanged freely between laboratories, equipment manufacturers were content merely if their products carried out specified tasks effectively, and experimental results were disseminated widely and rapidly.
In today's world, as a report compiled by a working group set up by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes clear (see page 505), the demands of licensing agreements and the enforced need to respect the intellectual property of others is reaching critical dimensions. Samples can be jealously guarded, manufacturers can exploit the ownership of unique technologies, the terms of collaboration can be stringent, and publication can be delayed on demand. The working party's conclusion is stark: “We believe that current trends pose a serious threat to the best interests of the biomedical research and development community as a whole.”
The problem is when common sense and moderation give way to greed. It is one thing, for example, to expect a reasonable return from a discovery that will undoubtedly bring profit to others; it is another to exploit the virtual monopoly position which the law, in the hands of an aggressive and imaginative patent attorney, can potentially allow one researcher to exercise over another. The fault does not always lie in the explicitly profit-motivated private sector. The NIH working group says it found those in industry who had been taken aback by the price of cooperation being demanded by some university researchers.
Given the diversity of situations in which tensions can arise, and the widely varying practices between different parts of the scientific community, there are no easy solutions — certainly none that could be enshrined in compact legislation. The NIH, also aware of the limited range of its responsibilities, is right to talk more in terms of building a consensus around broad guidelines. But it must not shirk from making unpopular judgements, for example by exercising its ‘march-in’ rights, where the long-term interests of biomedical research conflict with the short-term avarice of individuals. Science is one domain where belief in Adam Smith's ‘invisible hand’ can create as many problems as it solves.