Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Scientists As Entrepreneurs: Your Tax Dollars at Work

As you'll see in the cover story I have coming out in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, I spend a lot of time talking to researchers about the commercialization of science. Most downplay the role of the market in science and say it's rare that researchers start companies and turn profits. So I was very interested to see the results of the first study to actually look at the role of the market in science, which found "an astonishingly high rate of entrepreneurship."
"A study of university scientists who received financing from the U.S. National Cancer Institute ... found that the scientists generated patents at a rapid pace and started companies in surprisingly high numbers. The study, the authors say, suggests that the commercial payoff for the government's support for basic research and development in the life sciences is greater than was previously thought."

I'm all for commercialization of research results, because without it, biotech and pharmaceutical companies wouldn't turn research results into the therapeutics and diagnostics we need. But the cost of those products are becoming increasingly prohibitive. Especially given the fact that tax dollars fund much of the research. Which means the public is paying twice: Once to help fund the research, then again (at riduculous rates) to reap the benefit of that research when they go to the doctor. (The public also provides everything from DNA samples to drug test subjects to help make that research possible.) There's something problematic with that picture.

I've talked to Anna Barker, the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, about this stuff in the past. In my eyes, she couldn't be more right when says this: "At the end of the day, without commercialization, these ideas don't find their way to people ... What we have to do is intelligently balance two considerations - to smooth the path to commercialization but also guard against conflicts of interest that could undermine science." (Disputes over patents, like the recent Metabolite case now in the Supreme Court, can tie up research materials and important research for decades.)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The worst part about working in Industry research labs is the inherent bureaucracy and lack of innovation. Every product that comes along seems to be licensed or bought from a smaller company. To be sure, the development of these products to market is a non-trival technical and scientific process. However, little time at the big pharmas is spent on new compounds developed in house. Unless of course you are talking about something that is guaranteed to make the company money. Like hair loss drugs.

10:04 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Skloot said...

Yes. This also raises the point made by Toby Stuart, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Business, in the article I mentioned: "Are basic scientific questions being neglected because there isn't a quick path to commercialization? No one really knows the answer to that question."

11:23 AM  

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