Perspectives from a former scientist-in-training: If I knew then, what I know now…

March 24, 2008 by Tamsin Thomas

In its Strategic Plan published in 2006, Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation called for the generation of an “innovation culture” in Ontario with one goal of increasing the commercialization of research taking place at universities. I could not help but think of my own experience as a grad student in a cell biology research laboratory. The extent to which universities should be commercializing their research is an interesting issue on its own but I instead wish to point out the circumstances in which budding scientific researchers are being trained and emphasize that any commercialization of research needs to consider the view points of the grad students who are generating a large proportion of the research. It is essential that grad students are educated regarding their IP rights.

From the moment I became a graduate student, the emphasis was on generating data in order to publish a paper, submitting an abstract to a scientific meeting (which was hopefully somewhere exotic!) or adding data to my faculty supervisor’s research grant application. We were given orientation regarding the student union, the local pub and our health plan as examples but nothing regarding our IP rights. I remember being mildly surprised when we had a manuscript accepted and had to sign all our rights away. Not knowing any better at the time, I didn’t question it. Even if I had questioned this assignment of rights, there would be little I could have done. After all, in order to gain a reputation in science and get a good post-doctoral position and eventually a faculty position, the publication record is the main assessment factor. Furthermore, in order for faculty supervisors to obtain research funding from agencies such CIHR and NSERC, a strong publication record is vital.

Aside from building a reputation and getting research dollars, there is little commercial value in most publications that come out of a scientific research lab. To increase the commercialization of research coming out of universities, there would have to be a change in the emphasis. While publications are important, it will preclude the granting of a patent of anything of commercial value contained within a particular publication. Thus it is important that graduate students (as well as their faculty advisors) are educated regarding the different areas of IP, especially patents. For example, most of my colleagues at the time did not even contemplate a patent and appeared to be of the view that a patent was somehow out of reach. While this education might decrease “missed opportunities to patent”, there is the increased potential for exploitation of grad students. A MSc takes about two years to complete while a PhD in sciences takes about 4-5 years. Thus it is possible to have multiple students working on a project that leads to a patent. Conflicts can arise when determining who to include on the patent application. It is understandably difficult for a student to hear that she might have no commercial interest in a patent involving work to which she contributed 60 hours a week over a few years, and for which she received little pay. Grad students need to be aware of their IP rights to avoid these sorts of issues.

Several years ago when I entered into graduate studies, I didn’t even know what IP was and the words certainly wouldn’t have even caught my interest. In the unlikely event that I had done law school first and then my degrees in science, I would have had a completely different outlook. Would this knowledge have changed how I developed my research project? I was lucky enough to be in a lab where I had significant input regarding the development of my research and while I may not have been successful, I might have approached my project slightly differently with a goal of obtaining a patent for my work as well. On the other hand, I might well have decided that innovation was better served by making my IP freely available to all researchers. Regardless, surely the individuals generating IP need to have at least a basic understanding of their rights. I think it is essential for students to possess the knowledge to perhaps prevent “missed opportunities” to commercialize their work, possibly prevent themselves from being exploited by their supervisors and the university and even to simply assess the costs and benefits of commercialization of their IP in the first place. One way to do this is to include some IP classes during the first few weeks of every graduate program. Considering the interesting IP questions I have received upon visiting my former department, this would be a welcome idea. Grad students play a vital part in developing an “innovation culture” and need to be considered and educated in any scheme designed to increase the commercialization of their research.

  1. One Response to “Perspectives from a former scientist-in-training: If I knew then, what I know now…”

  2. While I would certainly agree that graduate students are a vital asset to research and innovation within our society, I am apprehensive over the notion of emphasizing intellectual property rights within the universities. Especially when funding is provided by the taxpaying public, should researchers still be able to claim proprietary rights to their creations? I had a friend who once analogized that scenario to: the government subsidizing a construction company to repair a highway (cost of labor), then allowing the company to charge tolls. While I do admit that graduate students, due to their lack of bargaining power, are often the targets for exploitation; for the sake of protecting the sanctity of research and progress, researchers should diverge as far away from the patent system as possible. Although the traditional premise behind the patent system is to, “promote scientific progress and technological development by providing incentives for inventors,”[1] today, many would argue that patents are more of a barrier than an enabler of innovation. The development of a research-for-patent type of system will have too great an emphasis on commercialization. Research for research’s sake should always be encouraged. There are many important research opportunities out there that will inevitably be unprofitable; in order for these forms of research to not be discouraged, patents should not be allowed to taint our education system.

    [1] Resnik, David B. “A Biotechnology Patent Pool: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?” (2003) 3 The Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law 1.

    By linhle on Mar 27, 2008

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