From lab to market
Basic lab research is only one link in the chain through which scientific research leads to economic growth; discoveries must be turned into commercial products. This, too, is rich territory for study. When researchers began patenting newly isolated genes in the 1990s (a practice made possible by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed researchers who receive government funding to keep control of their inventions), the ensuing debate raised an important question: does doing this dissuade other scientists from studying those same genes?
Patents in bioscience have become a favorite source of insight for Murray, a self-described “lapsed chemist” who studied chemistry at Oxford and got a PhD in applied science at Harvard. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t have the patience to let the cake bake in the oven until it’s finished,” she says. “Not a good quality if you want to be a chemist.” Instead, Murray has broken new economic ground by examining the impact of intellectual-property practices in the life sciences.
In a series of detailed studies, Murray and several coauthors have found that patenting genes can–at least initially–depress subsequent research. In a 2008 paper with Kenneth Huang of Singapore Management University, she looked at thousands of bioscience publications and discovered that the research on a publicly disclosed gene sequence diminishes by 5 percent after that gene is patented. And yet, as she argues in a paper forthcoming in the American Journal of Sociology, “over time that negative effect goes away.”
Today, patents can represent an invitation to collaborate. “People used to think that if I were running a lab and patenting a lot, it meant that the quality of my science had gone down, I wasn’t publishing anymore, and I had sold out to commercial interests,” says Murray, whose new paper examines research practices before and after DuPont gained patent rights in the 1980s over a mouse developed at Harvard to study cancer. But after studying researchers at labs like that of MIT’s Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute and a leader of the Human Genome Project, she doesn’t see it that way: “If people have a really good set of ideas, now they tend to both publish and file intellectual-property claims. And this kind of activity is really important, because it not only contributes to our long-term stock of knowledge but has potential applications.”
The death of the Renaissance man
Science may lead to technological innovation, and innovation may lead to economic growth, but in recent decades, America’s science and technology infrastructure has grown faster than the overall economy. “If you look at the number of people in research and development in science and technology, and the money spent on it, you see that our collective effort level is increasing demonstrably,” Jones says. “Yet our growth rate is not improving.” A corollary, he says, is that “the contributions of individuals [to economic growth] seem to be declining over time.”
Why? Jones believes that increased specialization in the sciences is a major factor. “Because there is more and more knowledge, it’s increasingly difficult for any individual to have a share of that knowledge,” he says.