Patenting and the Humanities

PatentFor this first blog it seems appropriate to reflect a little on an event which I attended recently at the British Library. My experience gave me a further indication that histories of intellectual property, particularly in the sciences, can bring to light important issues which are often glossed over or marginalised.

Public-facing discussions, lectures, debates, exhibitions or displays can often lead to hand-wringing, eyebrow-rolling, and a whole host of other hyphenated, physical signs of inward strife and frustration for researchers. I knew this, of course, when I signed up for the latest event in the British Library’s fascinating and stimulating Talk Science series, which ties in with a current exhibition: Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight. I also knew that the panel for the discussion event – entitled Inventions and Discoveries in Biomedicine: Patently Obvious? – was composed solely of those working in the field of science and/or innovation. The subject attracted a large audience, and there was genuine engagement with the key questions which underpinned the process of obtaining and defending patents in the biomedical sciences. This then seemed like an excellent opportunity to showcase the value of the humanities: by demonstrating the more nuanced nature of historical concepts of ownership and patenting, scholars in the arts can complexify and demythologise the debates about “good” versus “bad” habits of patenting, secrecy and protectionism.

To an extent, this was true, and the panel batted away the odd challenging comment from the floor about the dangers of a slow, cumbersome and expensive patent system. However, the ethical and historical dimensions of the question were almost totally unexplored, whilst the issue of pharmaceuticals in the developing world was entirely absent. We talked about acyclovir, Alzheimer’s, biomarkers and personalised medicine, but nowhere did malaria crop up. Tuberculosis was mentioned only in passing, and there was a corporate, Western-style market-economy-led slant on everything. I almost imagined one of the panellists shrugging his shoulders and saying: “You know, you gotta spend money to make money, kids.” There’s nothing wrong with reaching that conclusion, of course, but there was a dissenting voice missing from the panel, and the format of the event – think Question Time, but with fewer back-to-back audience comments – did not naturally lend itself to audience members stirring things too much.

This lack of a critical voice, putting things in perspective, was one which a sociologist, philosopher or historian could have easily provided. What we (well, I, at any rate) really wanted to know was why this system of intellectual property had emerged as one of the dominant forces governing the direction and structure of scientific research.

This isn’t a total tale of doom and gloom, though. After the end of proceedings I managed to have a quick chat with the Chair for the evening: Professor Jackie Hunter. As Chief Executive of the BBSRC, she is perhaps as well-placed as anyone to judge the current research landscape in the biological sciences. Within a few moments, she was very open to the idea of using history to move and inform the debate on the ethics of patenting in biomedicine, and even expressed dissatisfaction at the way in which some of her earlier research activity had been handled with respect to patenting and protection. It is important to highlight the fact that debates about seemingly ring-fenced scientific subjects often benefit from input from the humanities. This was one case in point, and the sooner a wider group of academic administrators appreciate the value of the arts subjects to inform such debates, the quicker we will have discussions which balance the economic, social and cultural impacts of academic research with issues of how scientific patenting processes actually operate. Perhaps Rethinking Patent Cultures can help.

Dr James Stark is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, and co-investigator on the Rethinking Patent Cultures Project. He is organising the second workshop in the programme, to be held at the Thackray Medical Museum on 14-15 July 2014.