Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pat and Andrea: Who Benefits?

Pat, of Fairer Science fame, and I have a periodic discussions about diversity and the sciences. We're hoping to post a series of posts that summarize our discussion. Although we tend to focus on gender, race, and ethnicity issues, we have briefly turned our attention to a different topic that serves as fodder for the initial co-blog entry. The discussion was initiated by a New York Times article about a lawsuit filed by the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute against former director Dr. Craig B. Thompson.  Here's the first entry: 
Who Benefits?
The recent press about the billion-dollar lawsuit brought by the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute at the University of Pennsylvania against Craig Thompson, the current president of Memorial Sloan Kettering once again brings up the troubling issue of who owns research results. Is it the investigator, the university or is it the funding organization? When the research is funded privately this is a matter to be decided by contract.
In the Abramson case, the suit declares that the contract between Abramson Foundation and Thompson mandated co-ownership of discoveries and developments in order that monetary profits are shared and the Foundation can reinvest in its mission and “fund untold advancements in cancer treatment for generations to come.” 
When the research is funded by public funds, no such agreement exists. The United States has purposefully entered into a social contract whereby the government lays no claim to results obtained and products developed through the research that it funds. Under this scheme, researchers and their universities are able to operate and staff laboratories in the development and pursuit of creditable ideas. Whatismore, they are able to do this without putting the money out up front. And that is fine.
There are great benefits to this agreement as federal funds enable progress and innovation on a scale that would not, without this magnitude of support, be realizable. However, there are downsides as well. Money made based on the research is shared between the researcher and the institution but not with the public who funded the work. 
It does seem, however, that including the public as a shared beneficiary of monetary gain is warranted. As in the Abramson case, if the research pays off big time (we think a billion dollars is big time!) something should be reinvested directly in the American people (and generations to come) who helped make the discovery possible.

Hope you enjoyed it and that you're looking forward to more.  Pat has already promised that our next post will get back to the point--especially since it is Black History Month!

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