Douchebags in Deutschland

Dismay, Confusion Greet Human Stem Cell Patent Ban“, wails Gretchen Vogel’s headline in the October 28th issue of Science. The news item itself begins with a question: “Has the environmental group Greenpeace dealt a major blow to the medical use of human embryonic stem cells in Europe? That’s what biologists, patent specialists, and lawyers are furiously debating after the European Union’s Court of Justice ruled last week that processes and products that involve such cells are not patentable.”

Photo grabbed from Science: photographer uncredited.

There’s scant evidence of furious debate in Vogel’s coverage. With the exception of Greenpeace, which is reported to have “welcomed” the ruling, the only real dispute in evidence is over whether the court’s ruling was merely bad or downright catastrophic.

So what hath Greenpeace wrought, exactly? Have they drunk the bible-thumper Koolaid, suddenly decided that Life begins the moment the panties cross the knees and that Zygocide is Murder? Have they somehow got European legislatures to outlaw placentas?

No. In fact, the ruling places no restrictions on hES cell research at all; it just disallows the patenting of products derived from Human genes.

I’m far from a huge fan of all things Greenpeace (although I’m pretty sure I’d line up on their side over anything involving, say, Monsanto). I have a fair amount of contempt for any lobby that plays the shrink-wrapped baby card in lieu of reasoned argument (which is not to say I don’t appreciate how effective such strategies can be). And certain aspects of this ruling — in particular, a definition of “human embryo” that includes zygotes and unfertilized eggs dividing parthenogenetically — strike me as a tad peculiar. None of which alters the fundamental point:

The ruling does not restrict research on Human stem cells. It merely restricts one’s ability to get rich off of it. Nor is this point lost on those who feel burned by its implications. They put it front and center, in fact. Vogel quotes Oliver Brüstle, the dude whose patent catalyzed the whole debacle: “It’s a disaster. It leaves European scientists with just basic research. They have to watch as their research gets made into treatments around the world.”

A horrible prospect, indeed: To see the fruits of your work benefiting all mankind. To work for no other cause than that and the sheer human curiosity of “basic research”.

So it’s finally come to this: the short-sighted defunding of dismissively-labeled “curiosity-driven research” at all levels of government; the Mephistophelian partnerships offered by industry only too willing to take up the slack, with strings attached; the inexorable, cancerous spread of profit-driven research from its original industry habitat into the marrow of academia and government alike. And here we are: at the point where one of the world’s leading scientific journals can report, without any hint of irony, on the unmitigated “disaster” of basic research.

What a sad, ignorant fucktard this Brüstle must be. What a perfect epitaph Vogel has inadvertently crafted from his words.

In my younger, more naive days I used to think that practitioners of law, medicine, politics — any of those professionals who’d have us believe they chose their calling out of some noble desire to “serve the community” — should be paid the minimum wage and no more. Pay for their education, by all means; give them job security and free housing. Make sure that society takes care of those who take care of society— but remove the profit motive. Make sure that the niche appeals only to those who really are primarily interested in the public good. Remove the incentives that attract money-grubbing assholes more interested in getting that third house in the Hamptons and a 1pm tee-off; there’s more than enough room in consumer electronics and the automotive industry for those guys, without letting them piss in the pool of public service.

Yeah, I know. I said I was naive; back then I thought that professionals who were primarily interested in the public good might actually exist.

I got better.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday November 07 2011at 03:11 pm , filed under rant, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

29 Responses to “Douchebags in Deutschland”

  1. I’m curious to see what Nature says about it. I’ll let you know in a month*.

    *My issues are arriving 2-3 weeks late. According to subscriber services, this is acceptable, as 6-8 weeks is what they consider ‘normal’. Nature being a weekly publication, this is why I’m not renewing my subscription.

  2. Robert, doesn’t the subscription include online access? Mine does. I can log in and see the current issue, but it doesn’t have anything about this at a glance. I skimmed. I skimmed recent blog posts and they don’t have it either.

  3. “The ruling does not restrict research on Human stem cells. It merely restricts one’s ability to get rich off of it.”

    And I’m all for it. An open source model for scientific discoveries benefits us all as far as I’m concerned. Maybe not in a financial sense, although I don’t think that’s impossible either. And especially when it comes to discoveries that will directly benefit the quality of life of our entire species.

    Gut für dich deutschland!

  4. This reminds me a a book I read recently, Next by Micheal Crichton. It had more to do with companies patenting genes left and right, and other things gone awry.

    The whole stem cell debate always has gotten on my nerves, especially when it comes to the religious zealots. Though, I agree the definition cited in the article of a human embryo is pretty damn odd.

    “unfertilized eggs dividing parthenogenetically” – Please explain?

    I was under the impression unfertilized eggs just empty out once a month without any action, so to speak.

    Taking out the profit incentive seems to be a mistake. Without more funding, work that could be helpful in the future might never be done. Even if some studies seem pointless, there have been and are useful discoveries found through avenues of curiosity. It’s a shame parts of the world are going this way.
    I really wish science education for the public was much better and wider spread than it currently is.

  5. Jonas Salk is the exception, not the rule. The existence of Salk does, however, introduce the possibility of other, similar outliers.

    Hope abides.

  6. Regarding the “They have to watch as their research gets made into treatments around the world.” bit, doesn’t it work the other way around as well? Couldn’t a European biotech company simply take patented knowledge gained through stem cell research in the US and use it to develop and sell their own products without paying licence fees (said knowledge being unpatentable in the EU)? Wouldn’t a European researcher doing stem cell research have access to all processes patented in the US and be able to conduct further research on that basis?

    If this is true, the court has just made stem cell research and product development a whole lot easier in the EU. As well as leaving US biotech companies with a lot of the costs and a big middle finger on top. Which I guess is why they’re upset.

  7. That kind of “naive” system did, in fact, exist for a number of years in my neck of the woods (crumbling post-communist transitional state), at least for practitioners of medicine – (more-or-less) free education, then public service work that paid a pittance. It turns out there *are* professionals primarily interested in the public good out there, who worked their asses off for minimum wage day in and day out.

    Of course, they were a minority, and the actual healthcare system was (and is) powered by under-the-table palm-greasing, but intriguingly for my (then) late-teenage cynical brain, it turned out not all of humanity are Nash-type system-gaming assholes.

  8. I’ll have to read more to make up my mind on the result, but it seems the reasoning of the court was stupid.

    Nature has slightly more balanced piece here, with interesting posts in the reaction section as well.

  9. Well said, Peter. At first sight, the title looked like the ruling was a catastrophic event, but finally, we may see some evolution? And, I do like the idea of removing the profit motive from all those “noble callings”…

  10. In my SF universe (Chaaas, still only in French), the medics all work, and live, in the city’s Tower (a huge hospital-con-sciences building). They have almost nothing as a salary, but get the free lodging, basic needs and respect. They do, however, tend to squabble and bicker about their research and sharing their results, since this is an area of competition for “prestige”.

  11. Unfortunately, given the current way that research is funded, banning the patenting of products that come out of stem cell research is effectively the same thing as banning stem cell research.

    Even in Canada, Harpo and his cronies are limiting funding to research for which a practical economic benefit has a high probability. This ignores the fact many important discoveries have been accidents, by-products of seemingly unrelated research.

  12. I’ve noticed crowd funding attempts such as #scifund. I found out about it because I read neurodojo sometimes and he’s running a fund to study crawfish.

    Not sure that is scalable for BIG SCIENCE. We wouldn’t get CERN out of it.

  13. Opposition to intellectual property is actually getting pretty popular among radical free-marketers. What is a patent but a government-granted monopoly? Certainly, patents were invented on strictly utilitarian grounds. The justification of such monopolies as rightful property was strictly ad hoc.

    In any case, this is absolutely GREAT news for stem cell research in Europe. If this ruling holds up I can easily see the greatest real progress in this field coming from Europe.

    My historic precedent for this prediction comes from the aircraft industry. Did you know that the Wright brothers and the US patent system were the greatest impediments to progress in the early US aircraft industry? Together, the brothers and the government were able to stop almost all progress until the US entered WWI, when the complete inadequacy of their planes as compared to those from Europe prompted the government to force the industry to adopt a patent pool, making it impossible to monopolize aircraft technology patents, a pool which has continued to exist to today.

    This has neither stopped technological development of aircraft nor prevented the industry from making a great deal of money from it. As far as I can tell, the common perception of freedom vs prosperity that characterizes opinions on the utility of the patent system is wholly unfounded. Abolishing it would make us both more free AND more prosperous.

  14. I’m not sure I can agree with your position here, Peter. If lawyers (and may I say as a member of that profession I feel much set-upon) and politicians aren’t altruistic, then neither are researchers.

    Large-scale, capital intensive research requires investment that will simply be absent without the profit incentive. This is why the lion’s share of long-term research (which is rarely unattractive to corporations) is done under government funding; it’s a market failure and property rights step in to correct that. This is the orthodox position of most economics and legal texts.

    Obviously that has to be balanced by the fact strong property rights encourage rent-seeking behaviour, but eschewing propertisation of intellectual property as a matter of principle and relying on man’s higher motives seems a bit unlikely.

  15. So it’s finally come to this: the short-sighted defunding of dismissively-labeled “curiosity-driven research” at all levels of government;

    Democracies are no good on long-term planning..
    What hurts electability worse?
    Slashing spending that a lot of people(or a few important party donors) directly benefit from, or slashing scientific spending, about which only very few people will get outraged?

    “unfertilized eggs dividing parthenogenetically” – Please explain?

    That’s an artificial processes to get more eggs to get stem cells from those.

  16. Robert, doesn’t the subscription include online access? Mine does. I

    It includes an online subscription, but I’m an old dinosaur and I like to read on paper.

    Frankly, I don’t remember what I read on the internet nearly as well as I do paper sources — partly because my memory is highly associative. I recall books and magazines by cover colour/shape and page wear, for example. If I need to find an article I read I can remember the magazine cover and (roughly) the position in the magazine but I can’t remember the title or author, which makes online very frustrating to use. Add in a better learning environment in my study (which has a comfy chair, lots of bookshelves, and no computer).

    I’ve just got the October 13 edition, so I’ll have a month to wait…

  17. Robert, I agree with respect to offline versions of Nature, and I would probably not subscribe to it if I depended only on online access. Above, I meant that you could do a search for news on this ruling to get the news of it earlier while you still have a subscription. (my search-fu failed in this case. other fan found it)

  18. Robert says: I recall books and magazines by cover colour/shape and page wear, for example. If I need to find an article I read I can remember the magazine cover and (roughly) the position in the magazine but I can’t remember the title or author, which makes online very frustrating to use.

    Yes! I’m not the only one with this trouble. It’s utterly maddening. Everything on the internet is in exactly the same place in my office, hanging off the same colored bar on the monitor.

    A color-coded spatial memory arrangement is worse than useless in browsing the internet. It’s a handicap.

  19. Your post is bang on the money. I am painfully aware of how corporations control what gets researched and how much. It certainly isn’t due to lack of interest that the birth control options that exist are crap and primarily dump the load on the woman.

    I love when a victory for human rights is considered a disaster for research.

    Even as I can see how it would be a problem for research in the current system.

    I should websearch to see what Vandana Shiva says about this.

  20. A color-coded spatial memory arrangement is worse than useless in browsing the internet. It’s a handicap.


    those of you who have this problem (hello me) might find it useful to think of things in terms of tagging and bookmarks and tools that automatically archive things for you. Perhaps your brain will think of things in space that way.

    There are multi coloured clouds of points out there, and they are linked up in various ways and have metadata hanging on them. When you think about the metadatas, the points can move around and the related thingees are there…

    You can think to yourself that I store things in “cognitive” and “prostheses” and there’s a big cloud of that, and and/or its descendents or antecedents have stored the association for you as well as archived the content of the page if you use something like that.

    So you probably had a really cool dream where post-humanity offlined themselves in to this format for a while and then decided to go in to some other version. That was back before pinboard and I dreamed that post-humans found the idea of offlineing themselves in to would be hilarious so did it for a while. groovy.

  21. Warden makes a good point about it working the other way around. According to my understanding, EU companies could use patented US stem cell content to develop their own products–because US companies will also not be allowed to receive patents for this kind of thing in the EU. As long as they only conduct their activity in the EU, they wouldn’t have to worry about infringement/licensing.

    Also, EU companies doing original research would still be allowed to patent in the US (and any other country where these things would be patentable and which is part of something like TRIPS). So their research could still be used for profit in a large market, meaning it could still make sense to invest in the research, if that’s all that is holding them back.

    AR: I’d be interested in seeing more information about the radical free-marketers opposing IP that you mention.

  22. Brent, my first exposure to the position was Against Intellectual Property.

    Besides many of the same utilitarian arguments against IP that non-free marketers have, it mostly seems to come down to the idea that the entire basis for private property, as many see it, does not apply to IP. Physical goods and resources are economically scarce, not everybody can do everything that they want with it without crowding out others, requiring a social mechanism for deciding who gets to decide what to do with what stuff. The free market answer to that question is private property. The same cannot be said of intellectual property, because taking it does not deny its full use to the original owners, making IP the answer to a question that never should have been asked.

  23. AR, thanks for the link. It sounds similar to something I argued in a thesis last year; hadn’t seen this position in the literature, but I was reading primarily philosophy and legal scholarship, not economics.

  24. Next step: Abolish patents altogether.

  25. Why do only the biggest corporations need patents to make a profit? Aren’t they big enough yet? (It’s possible to make a living without patents don’t you know.)

  26. If anything, the biggest corporations have the least need for patents. They have the experienced expertise of their researchers and the financial resources to back up any discovery that they could both stay at the cutting edge and effectively implement ideas from outside more quickly and profitably than smaller companies.

    But no matter how large a company gets, they will still always fall to some upstart newcomer if they can’t maintain their edge in an ever changing market. Unless, that is, they get government help to artificially inhibit such upstarts. Patents are just one of many institutions designed to do exactly that.

  27. Warden: “If this is true, the court has just made stem cell research and product development a whole lot easier in the EU. As well as leaving US biotech companies with a lot of the costs and a big middle finger on top. Which I guess is why they’re upset.”

    Very good point, precisely what I thought. European companies can still patent their research in US, too.
    This is not nice but definitely patriotic (in the **** rest of the world way), and Europe needs it because that’s how all other countries operate.

    On the point of IP: the IP is only needed because there’s scarce material properties… e.g. I develop computer games for living, if i had no property rights over that my distributor would not pay me the royalties that they pay to me, which would have been totally fine if i didn’t need scarce stuff like housing, food, etc.
    Nobody else in the world would conceivably make exactly same game as I did, too; it is only fair that I have right to control that.
    It is entirely different with patents than with copyrights. The patents cover things that other people could (and probably would have) invented independently. If you got a wheel patented, other people not only can’t copy your wheel, if any of them invents a wheel by themselves, they have to license from you, even though that is entirely unfair. There is a time limit, however, after which it is assumed that the technology would surely have been reinvented, and at which point patent expires. The time limit was set back when there were much fewer inventors working on much larger number of fields.
    In regards to the patenting of the human embryo derived information, the items to be patented are not even inventions in the first place, and would have been ‘reinvented’ in a very short time.

  28. re: the libertarians against intellectual property:

    The copyright protects your right on the intangible items you created, that the other people could not have created without you. This permits you to bargain those items against tangible items, but does not prevent anyone from creating anything independently from you. I have copyright on a computer game, and if there was as many universes as there’s atoms in our visible universe, and if in each universe all stars had a habitable planet, my copyright would never be even close to being infringed. I thus have a full moral right on my creation – it is my contribution to the world, it’s not something that i found laying on the street. If I have created some software, and had never published it, or have published it at too high price, I have not taken anything from anyone.

    The patent grants the patent holder a true monopoly, and allows patent holder to forbid other inventors from exploiting the fruits of their rightful labour, if other inventors happened to file later. It directly makes the world a poorer place – the opportunity to invent this idea is destroyed. The patent holder is given a right to take from some company that re-invented it independently. That is a fundamental difference.

  29. IP is the ultimate form of artificial scarcity. De Beers has nothing on the RIAA. We are at the cusp of an age in which the infinite replicability of information might reach its full potential, and the principle hindrance to this advance in human welfare is more legal than technical, and based largely on either special interest rent-seeking or patent falsehoods about how creative work has or would function without copyright.

    Apparently, iTunes and Steam should be impossible, since copyright in music and games has already been abolished in practice if not in theory, since anybody can download almost anything they want without consequences.* Nonetheless, people pay for these things, games get made, and people write music.

    *Except for the rare unlucky person, who was probably more likely to be struck by lightning than served for copyright infringement anyway.