Industry and Academia in Transition

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Science  21 Nov 2003:
Vol. 302, Issue 5649, pp. 1293
DOI: 10.1126/science.302.5649.1293

What should we call the millennium's first decade? My bias inclines me toward the Decade of Biology, to recognize the source of much of the contemporary excitement in science. Two historic developments in the United States converged to help create that excitement. The first flowed from the postwar decision that created a huge national engine of public science: an enterprise built on investigator-initiated projects, largely conducted in academic laboratories. The second is a latecomer; call it “industrial-strength basic research.” It is done in mixed or commercial settings, usually by large teams with impressive infrastructure support.

That convergence has raised some new problems, and their fallout has not been limited to the United States. In the old days, it was understood that universities did “fundamental” research work—the “R” in R&D. Industry took some of that R, added risk capital, and developed it into products. The D phase required intellectual property protection, but the R didn't. Things changed in the mid-1970s, when industry saw that ideas caught early in their trajectory had value and could attract venture capital, to which the tax laws became friendlier. The U.S. Congress passed the Bayh-Dole Amendments, letting universities patent research discoveries. Patenting, licensing, and material transfer agreements were populating the scene heavily by the late 1980s, and soon legal scholars were speaking of a knowledge “anticommons” in which intellectual property constraints were seen as suffocating scientific communication. Universities once thought (or at least preferred to believe) that they had a “research exemption” permitting professors to use industry-patented products or devices in their investigations. The Madey decision (Science, 3 January 2003, p. 26) ended that by making it clear that there never was such an exemption, and the judges noted that universities themselves had shown a certain business appetite. Indeed, the complaints in industry about academic aggressiveness regarding intellectual property issues are about as loud as those from the other direction.

Other assumptions, too, are facing new challenges. The genomics revolution served as the proving ground for industrial-strength fundamental research in biology. Teams working in a single corporate setting, with powerful capital tools and objective-driven management, have demonstrated that they can tackle big projects, often more successfully than distinguished but dispersed academic consortia. These achievements in the United States have helped persuade the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to include a strong component of team science (surely a welcome addition) in his recently issued “Roadmap.” And the National Academies have now looked at the same issue in the recently released report entitled Large-Scale Biomedical Science: Exploring Strategies for Future Research.

That report recommended that NIH analyze its own large-scale initiatives and evaluate their effectiveness in meeting stated goals. It also recommended ways in which government, through contracts with industry, could preserve and distribute research tools resulting from large-scale projects. The report falls short, though just barely, of directly recommending a funding strategy in which academic and corporate partners could be joined; for example, to pursue such large-scale biomedical projects as mapping haplotypes and single-nucleotide polymophisms. Such a strategy could extend the support now available to high-technology small businesses in the United States through the existing small-business set-aside program.

Given the growing number of settings in which effective teams with new technologies can be focused on important research objectives, it is plainly time to take advantage of their capacity in the interest of public health. Significantly, both public science and proprietary science have moved closer to one another in what interests them and what they can do. Both sectors are performing basic research and doing it well. Both have access to technologies (many of them commercially developed) to support high-throughput biological analyses that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. So it may now be time to set aside our traditional skepticism about a national industrial policy and adopt a biomedical research strategy combining the creativity and individual skill of traditional publicly funded programs with the technology investment and team tradition of the commercial sector. That could ease some of the growing tensions between academia and industry. And it would be a bargain, because it would deploy leveraged private resources in a venture that is clearly in the public interest.

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