Ethics in research question (Re: patenting)

SCHLOSSER at ciit.org SCHLOSSER at ciit.org
Thu Aug 19 08:54:00 EST 1993


To tie this, if only tenuously, to the previous discussion under this
heading: what would the big name research group/big name PI do?  I
believe that there have been a number of cases where PI's have 
succesfully taken full control & economic benefit from their 
investigations, cutting the university out.  Whether this is "wrong"
or "right" is a matter for debate.  The point is that Jon Priluck
is essentially correct that, even if you've signed a patent agreement
the university won't necessarily win out in court (and he did not
sign an agreement).  A lot of people get rich from the results of 
scientific investigation - look at the big chemical, engineering,
aerospace (well, maybe not during defense cutbacks) etc. firms.  So
why shouldn't it be the scientist who had the idea in the 1st place?
Is it possible that there is a double standard here?  Is it O.K. for
the PI to patent and take profit from research (cutting out the university)
but not for the student to do so?  It seems to me that a truly equitable
solution would be a sharing of profits (and this may happen in many
cases) between the university (which does make the research possible, if 
"only" by supplying lab space, supplies and intelectual resources like the
library and the stuff that had to be learned in class [for a student]
without which the discovery would not have occured) and the investigator.
But, when there's big bucks involved, everyone gets greedy.
I would also suggest that if Jon Priluck took the same arrogant tone
in dealing with the universtiy that comes across in his net messages,
I'm not surprised that an equitable solution wasn't reached.  Given Jon's
status as a student (apparently undergraduate) having signed no agreements
(the university will probably institute a policy on that VERY soon) he
is most likely legally justified in filing the patent.  Since it wasn't
part of an organized research project, he could have saved his ideas,
done his research at home after graduation (with some $ for investment)
and taken the patent with no argument - unlike the case of results from
a graduate thesis or a PIs university-supported research program, so I
think that there he is more justified than most in fighting for the patent.
Still, in dealing with the university after having filed patent, if he
hadn't "rubbed their noses" in it, he could have ended up in a much better
situation.  If the university failed to see the importance of his invention,
then he could of said, "OK, then you won't mind if I have a patent. Right?"
and if the university was as blind as Jon imples then they would have
said, "Sure, it's not important anyway," and things would have ended up
with fewer blackened eyes.  And Jon might have gotten a nice research
post at the university.  Of course, what will probably happen now is that
Jon will get the patent & leave the university (maybe without a degree)
and if the patent is truly great stuff then he'll start a business and
make more $$ than the rest of us combined - and I think that that is what
Jon wants.  Lots of people want to get rich and nobody blames them for
being tough business-people for doing so.  The fact that science was a
key component should not change this.  Many are in science for the
intellectual enjoyment, but it is a business.  Jon is being a tough
competitor, and maybe a bit arrogant, but I don't think that he is
being unethical.  He did not steal anyone's ideas and he did not perform
his research under a patent agreement which he is trying to get out from
under.  The university did not, and has no right to, expect anything from
him except his tuition.  If they want someone to do research on patentable
science, they should pay that person.

In short, Jon could have been more politic in his dealings with the 
universtiy, and maybe would have benefited from that (and maybe not),
but being impolitic is not being unethical.

Paul Schlosser
schlosser at beta.ciit.org
(These are my own opinions and not those of CIIT.)



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