Clifton Leaf: "a legal frenzy that's diverting scientists from doing science"

It's Sunday morning on the US East Coast and I really need to put the computer down to get out for a hike in the crisp, autumn air. Sunday morning is a great time to catch up on long-form writing but I won't be the one providing it for you.

Instead, I encourage you to take 15 minutes this morning to read an "old" (2005) article in Fortune magazine entitled, The Law of Unintended Consequences, by Clifton Leaf in Fortune magazine.

This article details the impact of a 1980 amendment to US patent and trademark law put forth by Senator Bob Dole and the senior Senator Bayh, Birch. The Bayh-Dole Act transferred the inventorship of discoveries from federally-funded research to the universities, institutes, or small businesses where the work was done (good overview here). Prior to 1980, the US government held the title to any discoveries made, say, with NIH funding and the vast majority of that technology languished unlicensed.

This is the reason, for example, why the co-discoverers of the anticancer drug, Taxol, never benefited financially from the work: because the discovery was made around 1970 and its mechanism of action was identified in 1977.

Leaf develops the thesis that universities have mismanaged innovation to the point of squelching scientific innovation. Incessant litigation over ownership and the propensity of universities to aim toward big-dollar exclusive licenses instead of many broad licenses has restricted the application of basic science discoveries into paying the dividends of medical miracles, creating instead a medical morass.

I'm certain that reading this article will draw polarized responses from readers about university technology transfer offices and how these processes often hinder progress in exchange for the rare payoffs. The efficiency and expertise of technology transfer groups varies wildly across universities but most scientists I know have their own stories of how their work was either delayed or deals mismanaged. The Fortune magazine article details several big wins, such as Columbia's licensing of the selectable cotransformation approach of Richard Axel and colleagues, but also cites the tremendous volume of litigation over other discoveries that never make it to application.

Go forth and read.

Many thanks this morning for this tip from Simon Frantz, the London-based Senior Editor at, and Michael Nielsen, the Toronto-based quantum physicist who is currently writing the book, The Future of Science, a "book [that] describes a major shift now occurring in how scientific discoveries are made, a shift driven by online tools for collaboration and sharing of scientific information."

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