How to Transform Research and Innovation for the Common Good

The climate and Covid-19 crises make it abundantly clear we need to change our society’s approach to research and intellectual property.

Thomas M. Hanna

A researcher works on a vaccine against the new coronavirus COVID-19 at the Copenhagen's University research lab in Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 23, 2020. Photo by THIBAULT SAVARY/AFP via Getty Images

A fork in the road” is prob­a­bly one of the more overused metaphors in the Eng­lish lan­guage. How­ev­er, in the case of the cur­rent moment, few would like­ly argue against its applic­a­bil­i­ty. We have been giv­en a ter­ri­fy­ing glimpse at what lies down one of the paths ahead. A glob­al pan­dem­ic has killed almost a mil­lion peo­ple, near­ly 200,000 in the Unit­ed States alone, and dec­i­mat­ed the econ­o­my. The West Coast is gripped by out-of-con­trol wild­fires, the smoke from which is chok­ing major met­ro­pol­i­tan areas that are home to tens of mil­lions of peo­ple. Hur­ri­cane after hur­ri­cane is pum­mel­ing the East and Gulf Coasts in one of the most active sea­sons on record. And protests against white suprema­cy, sys­temic racism and police bru­tal­i­ty have been met with an increas­ing­ly author­i­tar­i­an and vio­lent response. Faced with these inter­sect­ing social, eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal crises, many of our polit­i­cal lead­ers, espe­cial­ly those asso­ci­at­ed with the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion, have vac­il­lat­ed between paral­y­sis and dou­bling down on an ugly and dan­ger­ous embrace of xeno­pho­bia, white nation­al­ism, cli­mate denial and con­spir­a­cy theories.

We must urgent­ly change course and begin to take steps down a dif­fer­ent path — one that leads towards a new sys­tem that is eco­nom­i­cal­ly and racial­ly equi­table and repar­a­tive, eco­log­i­cal­ly sus­tain­able and gen­uine­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic. How­ev­er, vot­ing alone will not get us there. It will require us to fun­da­men­tal­ly inter­ro­gate every aspect of our polit­i­cal econ­o­my and con­scious­ly redesign each piece. Chief among these are the inter­con­nect­ed sys­tems of intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty (IP) and research and devel­op­ment (R&D), the cor­ner­stones upon which so much of our econ­o­my is built.

Con­fronting the chal­lenges ahead, most notably cli­mate change and its asso­ci­at­ed effects (includ­ing the increased like­li­hood of glob­al pan­demics), will require the devel­op­ment of a vast array of new inno­va­tions, tech­nolo­gies and med­i­cines. More­over, it will also require rapid­ly deploy­ing new and exist­ing tech­nolo­gies around the world. How­ev­er, in recent decades, IP pro­tec­tions have increas­ing­ly become a dri­ving force for the accu­mu­la­tion and pro­tec­tion of assets by a nar­row set of multi­na­tion­al com­pa­nies and elite inter­ests, result­ing in slug­gish rates of inno­va­tion, increas­ing eco­nom­ic, racial and geo­graph­ic inequal­i­ty, and reduc­tions in com­pe­ti­tion, among a host of oth­er dele­te­ri­ous out­comes. Sim­i­lar­ly, R&D has increas­ing­ly been direct­ed towards pri­vate inter­ests and pri­vate prof­it, result­ing in reduced pub­lic spend­ing on R&D as a per­cent­age of GDP and a reori­en­ta­tion of R&D spend­ing (both pub­lic and pri­vate) towards max­i­miz­ing prof­its, rather than align­ment with press­ing social, eco­nom­ic and eco­log­i­cal needs.

In a new report from The Democ­ra­cy Col­lab­o­ra­tive (where I am Research Direc­tor) and Com­mon Wealth (part of our transat­lantic Own­er­ship Futures” series), we dis­cuss how prin­ci­ples of demo­c­ra­t­ic pub­lic own­er­ship could inform the need­ed restruc­tur­ing of the U.S. and U.K. IP and R&D sys­tems. As a first step, we must rise to the chal­lenge of boost­ing pub­lic R&D invest­ment to meet the inno­va­tion needs of what promis­es to be a chal­leng­ing cen­tu­ry ahead. Specif­i­cal­ly, we sug­gest that pub­lic fund­ing (from all lev­els of gov­ern­ment) for R&D should rise to at least 2% of GDP annu­al­ly over the next ten years. In the Unit­ed States, this would reverse decades of decline and return pub­lic R&D invest­ment to about what it was in the ear­ly 1960s.

Arguably, the crises we now face are far greater and more exis­ten­tial than those of 60 years ago, and we should have at least the same lev­el of R&D response. For instance on cli­mate change alone, many experts agree that in addi­tion to deploy­ing exist­ing renew­able ener­gy and car­bon reduc­tion tech­nolo­gies, a big increase in pub­lic R&D is crit­i­cal to stop­ping cli­mate change and mit­i­gat­ing its effects. Many poli­cies stim­u­late clean ener­gy inno­va­tion and cre­ate glob­al tech­nol­o­gy spillovers (e.g. car­bon tax­es, sub­si­dies for renew­able ener­gy, phas­ing out fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies),” a recent report from the orga­ni­za­tion Let’s Fund” states. But the most effec­tive pol­i­cy is increas­ing gov­ern­ment bud­gets for pub­lic clean ener­gy research and devel­op­ment (R&D).”

How­ev­er, where this invest­ment is chan­neled and who it impacts and ben­e­fits is crit­i­cal. Pub­lic spend­ing on R&D isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly always in the pub­lic inter­est and is some­times cham­pi­oned by cor­po­ra­tions to bol­ster pri­vate prof­its. Boost­ing R&D invest­ment in a way that pro­motes equi­ty, sus­tain­abil­i­ty and democ­ra­cy will require, among oth­er things, the estab­lish­ment of new insti­tu­tions (such as pub­lic invest­ment banks) and more par­tic­i­pa­to­ry gov­er­nance process­es, as well as the devel­op­ment of a broad­er indus­tri­al and eco­nom­ic strat­e­gy that focus­es on secur­ing eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­i­ty, nur­tur­ing alter­na­tive mod­els of own­er­ship, reduc­ing cor­po­rate con­cen­tra­tion and pow­er, and strength­en­ing work­ers’ rights and control.

We also need to ensure that our approach to intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty serves the com­mon good and facil­i­tates — rather than impedes — the glob­al pro­lif­er­a­tion of crit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies, espe­cial­ly those relat­ed to pre­vent­ing cli­mate change and secur­ing pub­lic health (such as clean ener­gy and bat­tery tech­nol­o­gy, vac­cines and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drugs and inno­va­tions relat­ed to food pro­duc­tion). This includes more con­ven­tion­al reforms, such as reduc­ing the length of patent and copy­right terms, lim­it­ing the types of inven­tions and inno­va­tions that can receive IP pro­tec­tions, restrict­ing patents to process­es rather than prod­ucts, and remov­ing IP pro­tec­tions if an inven­tion or prod­uct is not being uti­lized (or is being underutilized). 

How­ev­er, it also includes reassert­ing pub­lic con­trol over the IP sys­tem (which is, to begin with, sim­ply a set of rights and pro­tec­tions grant­ed by the gov­ern­ment). This may include build­ing on and strength­en­ing approach­es like com­pul­so­ry licens­ing, which allows gov­ern­ments to bypass IP restric­tions, and laws such as 28 U.S. Code § 1498, which, as one arti­cle put it, gives the gov­ern­ment the right to use patent­ed inven­tions with­out per­mis­sion, while pay­ing the patent hold­er rea­son­able and entire com­pen­sa­tion.’” It also should include ensur­ing that the pub­lic retains an own­er­ship stake in, and con­trol over, any inven­tions and prod­ucts that were devel­oped thanks to pub­licly fund­ed R&D.

In the absence of such pro­vi­sions, we risk per­pet­u­at­ing the cur­rent sys­tem of dou­ble tax­a­tion” where­by the pub­lic invests in R&D for many crit­i­cal prod­ucts and inno­va­tions, and then pays again in the form of exor­bi­tant prices charged by the cor­po­ra­tions that ulti­mate­ly end up con­trol­ling the product’s IP. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sec­tor, and in the con­text of the cur­rent cri­sis, it appears like­ly that ulti­mate­ly the gov­ern­ment will be forced to spend con­sid­er­able sums to pur­chase a suc­cess­ful Covid-19 vac­cine from com­pa­nies like Mod­er­na, despite hav­ing already invest­ed tens of mil­lions, if not bil­lions, of the public’s dol­lars into the vaccine’s development. 

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, we must move away from an IP and R&D sys­tem based on enclo­sure and exclu­siv­i­ty towards greater lev­els of open­ness and col­lab­o­ra­tion. This is espe­cial­ly impor­tant because many of the chal­lenges and crises we face are glob­al in nature and will only be solved through gen­uine inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion. To do so, we sug­gest devel­op­ing pub­licly owned and demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly gov­erned IP Com­mons enti­ties or IP pools that could, depend­ing on the cir­cum­stance, oper­ate on a license mod­el, an open-access mod­el or, per­haps most like­ly, a com­bi­na­tion of both. 

In addi­tion to help­ing facil­i­tate inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion in the face of glob­al chal­lenges, these com­mons enti­ties could also be a vehi­cle to pro­vide both domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al repa­ra­tions in the form of tech­nol­o­gy trans­fers and R&D sup­port. The economies of the Unit­ed States, the Unit­ed King­dom, and oth­er so-called tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced” nations were built on sys­tems of impe­ri­al­ism, colo­nial­ism, racism and enslave­ment, and we believe that repar­a­tive approach­es and glob­al sol­i­dar­i­ty must be cen­tral to any agen­da for IP and R&D reform (and demo­c­ra­t­ic pub­lic own­er­ship in the 21st cen­tu­ry more generally).

While there is an under­stand­able hunger in the Unit­ed States for a sense of nor­mal­cy after an extend­ed peri­od of social and eco­nom­ic tur­moil, a return to the sta­tus-quo of a year ago, or even four years ago, is not fea­si­ble, nor should it be desired. Doing so would do lit­tle to redi­rect us from the unsus­tain­able and unsta­ble path we are cur­rent­ly head­ing down. As dif­fi­cult as it may be, we should view the cur­rent moment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty: a cri­sis-dri­ven wake-up call to change course and reimag­ine every facet of our polit­i­cal econ­o­my, from the IP and R&D sys­tem on up, before it is too late. 

Thomas M. Han­na is Direc­tor of Research at The Democ­ra­cy Collaborative.
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