Molecular biology has both transformed the science of biology and spawned the new industry of biotechnology. Plant biotechnology is a knowledge-based industry that depends on basic research tools and novel genetic combinations for continuous innovation. In efforts to increase U.S. competitiveness in the 1980s, federal policies were implemented to encourage public-private research collaboration and to promote more rapid commercialization of new inventions. Today, in exchange for ownership of enhanced germplasm and scientific knowledge, industry is supplying its university collaborators with much-needed research funding. In addition, the plant biotechnology industry has gained strong protections for its innovations through the granting of utility patents. Academic scientists are uncertain what effect this strengthening of property rights will have on plant molecular biology in the future. Sorting out claims to ownership of intellectual property is perhaps the most difficult issue facing universities and industry as they strive to create new partnerships.
In November 1996 the National Research Council convened a forum of scientists and administrators from universities, industry, and the federal government to explore intellectual property rights issues from the diverse areas of plant science that support development of future plant biotechnologies. The purpose of the “Forum on Intellectual Property Rights and Plant Biotechnology” was to promote an open exchange of views among research collaborators in crop genetics, phytoremediation, and biobased energy sectors. The present volume summarizes the discussions and issues raised by participants at the forum.
Increased interest in the protection of intellectual capital has stimulated the establishment of technology transfer offices in universities across the United
States. Though forum participants indicated that more and more scientists are aware of the need to protect their inventions, university researchers need better guidelines for balancing patent and publishing rights. Some participants noted that universities have an unrealistic expectation that immature technologies will be developed rapidly into useful products by commercial firms. Forum participants agreed that the generation of guidelines for successful technology transfer would improve relationships among research collaborators.
Forum participants represented a continuum of plant science applications ranging from the mature hybrid seed industry to small start-up biotechnology firms. Since 1990 most small genetic engineering firms that developed food and fiber crops have been acquired by larger firms. On the other hand, small biotechnology spin-offs in the phytoremediation sector are beginning to attract the attention of venture capitalists. Participants explained that intellectual property is a strategic tool to increase a firm's competitive advantage. According to those engaged in biobased energy research, since private corporations anticipate eventual returns on their investments, federal funding will continue to be a major component of biobased energy research until marketable products are developed. Forum participants agreed that all three segments of plant science will increasingly depend on industrial funding for basic research underlying the development of biotechnology innovations.
At the forum, academic scientists expressed uncertainty about the effect that strengthened intellectual property rights may have on the future of fundamental plant science. Some argued that strategies developed to protect ideas and data are inhibiting an open laboratory, which is so vital to the discovery process. Others emphasized that access to enabling technologies and genetic material now concentrated in some private firms is crucial to the improvement of most food and fiber crops. Ron Sederoff, speaking for the majority of forum participants, warned that intellectual capital in plant molecular biology is deteriorating. Without increased public funding resources, universities cannot create new knowledge or train scientists. If this trend continues, universities will have little intellectual capital to offer industry. As a result, innovations in plant biotechnology will suffer. Forum participants agreed that government, university, and industry collaborations will benefit from continued exploration of intellectual property rights issues.