The importance of unnatural science

by reestheskin on 10/08/2015

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One of the dangers of focussing on  learning natural science is that you may become oblivious to all the unnatural science that may shape human society to a greater degree. I am talking here of the rules and institutions that we create to organise our combined social existence: money, the rules of a formal legal system, the created cultures and belief systems that underpin how we think society works, and so on (as in the conventional lies that get us through the day).

The Economist has a couple of pieces on patents, recounting their origins and  the longstanding differences in opinion over their utility: how they can retard — as well as advance — enquiry. And we will put to one side for the moment the stupidities of modern patents on iPhones  and ‘one-clicking’ etc

That is why proponents of patents see it as reasonable to let Bristol-Myers Squibb have a temporary monopoly on Opdivo, its new melanoma drug, and to charge $120,000 per course of treatment in America. If the company could not do so, the argument goes, it would not have spent a fortune on getting the drug and its complex manufacturing process approved. However, the history of the industry raises doubts about such arguments.

I was surprised  — and I learned this from David Healy only a few years back — that until 1967, German companies could only patent the process by which they made a drug,and not the drug itself. (And the Economist states the German’s invented more drugs than the British). The article adds:

Another interesting case is Italy, which had no patent protection for drugs until 1978. One study showed it invented a larger proportion of the world’s new medicines before that date than afterwards. 

Awhile back I wrote a piece in the Lancet (Rees J. Patents and intellectual property: a salvation for patient-oriented research. Lancet. 2000;356:849–850 pdf here), pointing out that one side-effect of IP rules for medicine was that it tended to favour approaches that afforded IP protection over those that did not. I still think that observation is correct, although I suspect my solution owes more to irony than what how we should move forward. Just as for copyright, we are seeing shaping of the legal landscape to protect incumbents and to discourage innovation. The article ends with sentiments I can agree with:

But a top-to-bottom re-examination of whether patents and other forms of intellectual-property protection actually do their job, and even whether they deserve to exist, is long overdue. Simple abolition raises problems in terms of the ethics of property rights (see leader). But reductions in the duration of exclusive rights and differentiation between those rights for different sorts of innovation are possible, and could be introduced in steps over a number of years, allowing plenty of time for any ill effects to surface. Experiments with other forms of financing innovation could be run alongside the patent system. If defenders of the patent system really seek to foster innovation, they should be prepared to do so in their own backyard.