Openness Shock: Are We Mice or Are We Academics?

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen. (John Steinbeck)

A link to an article stood out among the Berlin9 tweets rush yesterday during the Harold Varmus presentation. Varmus, a director of the US National Cancer Institute, pointed to a piece by Murray et al. from 2008, Of Mice and Academics: Examining the Effect of Openness on Innovation.

Although the article dates back to 2008, the cost of intellectual property and the limits that IP rights may place on the diversity research, remain neglected. The idea of Murray et al. was that “within academia, restrictions on scientific openness, such as those created by formal intellectual property, may limit the diversity and experimentation of basic research itself.” How the openness presents a shock in a world where researchers have control rights on their research activities and what has this all to do with mice, is explained in a following experiment.

All Diseases Reserved

The experiment in openness occurred in the late 1990s and it involved free distribution and sharing of mice that were previously patented used under restrictive licensing terms. Such were the Cre-Lox mouse and Onco-mouse (the Onco-mouse belonged to Harvard).The mice were genetically engineered to become diseased. The production and breeding of such mice, that is, the method that was protected, is described as complex, costly and time consuming. What happened in the 1990s and what caused the “openness shock” was the allocation of control rights over mice engineering methods which proved central to knowledge production and innovation:

“On July 1 1998, after considerable pressure from the academic community, NIH Director and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus announced a Cre-lox Memorandum of Understanding  between DuPont, the Jackson Laboratories, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) greatly increasing the openness of Cre-lox mice for academic researchers. It allowed JAX or university researchers to distribute and share Cre-lox mice with a simple license. Before 1998, mice embodying the cre-lox technology could not be shared without a costly and restrictive license from DuPont.”

Open Mice: New Frontier

In a world of complete academic freedom, ideas are non-rivalrous and the licenses are non-restrictive. The openness of such world, Murray et al. wish to prove, can influence the level and nature of scientific research:

  • by reducing the costs of accessing key research inputs openness encourages new researchers to enter, thus increasing the diversity of academic research participants
  • relative to what would happen in the case of industrial research, openness makes free (academic) researchers more likely to engage in experiments that broaden the number and diversity of research lines, in part because subsequent openness implies that their research can itself have subsequent impact
  • finally, there is of course a direct expropriation effect — an increase in the level of openness of an upstream research tool should encourage the exploitation of that tool in research which is already well down the research line and in the more applied phase.

“Overall,” Murray continues, “our theoretical discussion suggests that, particularly in free (academic) research, openness may increase the overall flow of research output.”

What followed the mice experiment from the 1990s was the proof that  mouse articles affected by the openness shocks (Cre-lox and Onco mouse-articles) received an additional 24% increase in their annual citation rates after the Memorandum was signed. It shows that positive shocks to openness foster research intensity, rather than hindering it.

The authors of the article suggest: “Our results highlight one of the possible dangers of excessive IP enforcement – if IP is used to restrict openness particularly at very early stages of the research line, then it is possible that the rich array of exploration projects that are key to diverse follow-on innovation will be stifled.”

Will researchers working within academia recognize on time that to remain competitive means to engage in openness? How many mouse genomes will we disease with licenses before we apply an open model?  Are we mice, or are we academics?

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