|Genome Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues
DOE Human Genome Program Contractor-Grantee Workshop
|176. Competition Between
Public & Private Research Funding in Genomics
Rebecca S. Eisenberg
The field of genomics exhibits considerable overlap in the type of research that is supported by public and private funding. Recent announcements from two private firms that they plan to complete the DNA sequence of the human genome ahead of the publicly funded HGP is the most recent, and perhaps the most dramatic, example of this phenomenon. Sometimes public and private institutions commingle funds and work together collaboratively, but sometimes they are openly competitive. These interactions shed an interesting light on the relationship between public and private funding of scientific research. A number of features of public-private interactions that have been highly salient in this particular setting play little role in standard accounts of the relationship between public and private research funding, including scientific rivalry for priority in achieving overlapping if not identical goals, a tortoise-hare struggle over the relative virtues of speed and thoroughness, and recurring controversies over intellectual property and terms of access to data and discoveries.
A standard account of the relationship between public and private research pictures publicly-funded research as promoting activities that are entirely distinct from the sort of research that private firms are likely to pursue with their own funds. In his classic argument for continued government funding of research following the conclusion of World War II, Vanevar Bush called for government funding of "basic research" to compensate for inadequate commercial incentives to invest in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge, as distinguished from "applied technology." Economists have similarly suggested that government research funding should compensate for "market failure" that limits private motivation to invest in research, despite the high social value of such investments, because of uncertainty as to who will profit from research results and difficulty in appropriating results as intellectual property. An alternative justification for public funding of research that finds little support among economists but nonetheless enjoys considerable political popularity emphasizes promoting technological innovation by U.S. firms. In this account government-funded research is pictured as an advanced scouting mission to identify promising opportunity for short-sighted or risk-averse firms. None of these accounts contemplates public funding of research that is competitive with private sector research.
When does it make sense to allocate taxpayer
dollars to funding research that that resembles work being pursued in the
private sector? Are there circumstances in which public funding of research
may be justified as a means of forestalling private appropriation of research
results as intellectual property? When are judgments about the wisdom of
patenting certain types of discoveries best left to the patent system in
its determinations of what may be patented, and when are such judgments
appropriately made by funding agencies in deciding what sort of research
to fund and in limiting the rights of grantees to pursue patent rights?
What are the proper roles of the patent system and research funding agencies
in mediating the boundaries between public and private in research science,
and what sorts of judgments on this issue are within the competence of
the institutions that manage these systems?
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