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Vincent Pieribone is Associate Fellow, The John B. Pierce Laboratory, and Associate Professor, Cellular & Molecular Physiology and Neurobiology, Yale University School of Medicine. He attended New York University College[…]

While openness encourages scientific discovery and reduces duplication, in the corporate sphere, it often results in idea theft.

Question: Is the lack of transparency in scientific research slowing down the progress of advances?

Vincent Pieribone: So I guess I have a sort of corporate side to my life because developing drugs to treat neurological conditions.  And so, there’s a huge contingent of scientists I guess that work in corporations that are either drug companies or engineers developing things like that.  And they’re secretive in that sense just as all businesses are secretive.  I think academic scientists as compared to almost any function I know are more transparent, I think.  I think it’s a perfect model in many ways.  I mean, there’s always problems with these things, but I think comparing it to just about any other way of functioning, the scientific approach is, in it’s essence, is the way to go.  Because what we do is we do an experiment and then we write in detail how we did it, and then we publish the results.  And what that does is that allows everyone else to redo it.  So, I could lie, okay, I could easily makeup experimental results.  That’s easy.  But when I have to write how I did it, then a person can come along and redo it. 

I would say it’s different from a courtroom where two lawyers get together and they fight over something that happened over the past and nobody can recreate.  And whoever creates the better, more plausible, more believable version of the past, even is it’s not real, sort of wins the trial.  It’s not the case with us.  We have to do something and every thing we do has to be repeatable.  So, everybody has to be able to go and repeat my science.  So I can lie, but ultimately it has to be repeated.  But I think maybe what you’re getting at in that term is that, certainly corporations, and places that do science related to cars and automobiles are not transparent.  Certainly are not.  I mean, they have a competitive advantage to remain non-transparent. 

But that’s where the government kind of has to play a role, I guess.  I think that the thing about us is that we’re academic scientists, which means we’re required by the universities to disclose everything we do.  What we’re there for is to serve the public good.  That’s all we do.  We do all this work, we spend all this money, and our output is papers.  We don’t make hamburgers, we don’t make cars.  We make stuff that people read only.  Right?  That’s all we do.  And we’re required to disclose what we do and we’re required to go through a lot of issues, required to not have conflicts.  In other words, I’m not allowed to get money from a drug company, theoretically, and then work on research in that company. I don’t want to publish bad results because I have stock in the company kind of notion.  But those are grey areas there’s a lot of discussion around how much we are allowed to do that kind of work because it can make our work a little less transparent.  And unfortunately when there’s large amount of money involved, which is what you’d have in the transportation and auto industry, and the pharmaceutical business, it encourages dishonesty.  It encourages people to say okay, let’s ignore that because that’s going to hurt the development of this drug in the future.  And you see this all the time when drugs come out and you find that they have all these problems with them. 

But I think in the basic science, in the academic science, it’s a model in some way.  I’m surprised.  I think that government funding things in an open fashion helps research move forward and not to have another plug again for government funding, but it’s the only place I think American citizens can see that their dollars are being put to work in the scientific arena in open fashion.  We publish everything.  And now everything is in the public domain basically.  When I write something, I have to publish it.  I can’t keep it to myself; I can’t share it only amongst my group. So, it’s a way for the public to get their money’s worth.  To get things done and car companies can take those ideas; drug companies take those ideas all the time and turn them into large profits.  All discoveries that drug company develop drugs with come out of our laboratories.  Come from tax dollars, ultimately.  Right? 

And I think as soon as it leave us, it moves into the corporate setting, it’s no longer transparent.  And so I guess I’m a real proponent of government funding and this horrible idea of big government is bad.  Big government isn’t really that bad when it uses the dollars in that direction, I think. 

Question: Is there a role for government when it comes to research at scientific corporations?

Vincent Pieribone: You know, I guess I’m a big fan of American capitalism as well.  And having it an advantage is important.  I think the patent system in this country is a disaster.  And so, getting patents approved is like something out of Alice in Wonderland, it’s just unbelievably bizarre.  You submit a patent, they reject it outright.  Every patent gets outright rejected since examiners seem to make money off of rejection.  And so they reject everything and so you spend the next year and $25,000 on lawyer fees working their way back to getting an approved paten, which is what you submitted in the first place.  And that’s why paten attorneys are huge business.  Right?  So, this process is ridiculous, but corporations have to do this because we live in a world where a lot of research gets put into some idea and then it makes it to the market and there are a lot of other people who will come in and just take it.  And I’m a big believer in if people do research and come up with a good product, it shouldn’t be stolen.  They should be able to make their money back because that encourages future investment. 

It’s had to say, to develop a drug these days, it’s an area that I’m most familiar with, it costs hundred of millions of dollars.  And if at the end of the day a company makes a drug and it goes to market and somebody can just take it, you know a generic just takes the drug and starts selling it, from a consumer perspective, that seems like a good idea because the drug costs this amount a month, and now the cost goes way down with the generics, but on the other hand, all that R&D that went into the development of that drug, all those people who were paid, all those investors, they all lose their money.  And they’re not going to do that in the future, and you’re not going to get the next drug. 

So, there has to be a balance between corporations that have to extend, and I don’t want to be on the side of defending a large pharmaceutical company, but they extend huge amounts of money upfront to see these drugs make it to market, as do cars.  Cars cost a lot of money to develop and when they hit the door, out the door and they don’t have patent protection because it is difficult to do a patent and someone just steals their ideas, then how do their investors make their money back.  And it’s a real world problem.  Right now, a lot of these generic companies have huge legal departments that are just there to like, de-patent.  So, someone has a great idea, they’ve really worked hard to get this drug to market, through all these obstacles and odds you know, and worked through all the problems and it gets to market after multi-millions of dollars, and a generic company breaks the patents, they can start selling the drug at half the price, or a quarter of the price, they’re not going to make their money back.  And it’s not going to encourage future development.  I mean, developments are these complicated things, like drugs and cars; it takes a lot of people, a lot of time, and a lot of money.  And I think if you don’t help ensure investors that they’re going to see something at the end of all that investment, they’re not going to invest in it any longer. 

And so I think that I personally have come across a number of interesting therapeutics that we can’t develop because they don’t have any intellectual property behind them.  I mean, not interesting things that work, I mean we have drugs out there that all these guys know that work.  They just won’t be developed and put into humans because you can’t protect it.  You’re not going to spend $100, $200, $300 million to get a drug to market so that a generic company can start selling it.  It’s just – you don’t get your money back.  And so they won’t do it.  They’ll go off and look for things that are.  And there’s a whole space out there full of these things that will never see the light of day because we don’t have – we have rules like the Hatch Waxman Law which says, if you get something to market you get a certain number of years of exclusivity.  Well in the U.S., that’s a five- or six-year exclusivity, in Europe it’s much longer.  So that patents are not that big of an issue.  If I get something on the market, I’m going to be at least given a certain number of years of exclusivity to sell my product. 

That doesn’t exist in most of the rest of the world.  But I think the Congress recognized that it’s very expensive to develop drugs and so nobody’s going to go out and make those outlays if they can’t see something down stream.  So, that’s part of the healthcare debate, in a sense.  There was a part of the healthcare bill that includes extending that exclusivity period.  It upset some people because, they think, oh it’s longer before we get to the generics and stuff like that, but on the other hand it’s going to encourage a lot more investment into the process of making drugs.  I mean America leads the world on making drugs because America leads the world on capital that can be deployed to do these kind of –

So on the issue of transparency, it is a two-way street.  It’s only so good if things are – transparency obviously encourages scientific discovery and reduces duplication and I’m not doing the same experiment that you’re doing that kind of thing.  But when it gets into the corporate sphere, it’s hard to do that in a way that you just don’t get your lunch eaten, and people will eat your lunch.  For sure they will.  There are a lot of people out there willing to do that.  So, it tends to blunt creativity.  And that’s why the patent system was put in place years ago.  I meant that’s what a patent was meant to be, it was meant to reward the person and encourage development.  If you have a great idea that someone else can’t steal it.

Recorded on January 21, 2010