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Everyday Ethics

Leland Glenna on Universities and Patents

by SKeira Apr 15, 2015
Leland Glenna, Associate Professor of Sociology and Science, Technology, and Society, posed this question at the Paterno Fellows Town Hall Forum on Food Ethics:
Should universities patent the seeds they develop in their research?
He elaborated on his question in the following way:

Social scientists have long assumed that a society needs people and institutions to generate private goods and public goods if that society is to maximize social welfare.  A person who has a private good can exclude others from using it without some form of compensation. In contrast, a public good is something that is available to all people.  In the case of scientific research, industries that do scientific research tend to focus on producing things that can be patented, and thereby, can be sold for profit. Universities have tended to produce public goods, such as knowledge, that is available for everyone to use. Policy changes in the 1980s have enabled and encouraged university scientists to patent their research findings. These policy changes may yield social benefits, since universities may be more likely to conduct research that is closer to being converted into a utilizable product.  However, society may not be well served if university researcher become less focused on generating public goods.  Policy makers and university administrators need to be better informed and more conscientious to manage the potential negative outcomes from the current research context.