Scientific results: to patent or publish?

A Commission survey on the patenting and publication by EU scientists and organisations from industry and academia involved in biotechnology and genetic engineering research, that highlights the need for support to and training of academics in the proper use of the patent system. Public research organisations can handle patent applications almost as professionally as industrial organisations and without significantly delaying the publication of results that are subject to patent applications. In contrast, among scientists who have not used the patent system yet there is the belief that patenting would considerably delay publication. The survey also points towards the needs of academics and SMEs for an effective and affordable patent system, such as proposed through the Commission proposal on a Community patent. This issue is part of the proposed strategy for the biotechnology sector which is on the agenda of the March 2002 Barcelona European Council.

Commenting on these findings Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: “It is quite clear that small and innovative companies as well as young researchers need European patent protection. This is particularly true for fast moving sectors such as biotechnology, where Europe has a real chance to become a world player and to create employment. The Commission has stated clearly in its strategic plan for life sciences that a level playing field is needed in patent protection in industrialised countries.”

Internal Market Commissioner Frits Bolkestein added ”This survey once again underlines the demand for cheap and easily accessible patent protection valid throughout the EU. It is therefore vital that our proposal for a Community Patent is adopted urgently”.

Research institutes, universities and small biotech companies, which are major contributors to innovation in the life sciences, frequently face a conflict between the urge to quickly disclose research results to the scientific community and/or investors and at the same time the need to file for patent applications. These conflicting priorities to patent or publish can delay the publication of scientific results and hinder the rapid dissemination of scientific knowledge, thereby slowing scientific progress. Yet, the patent system ensures the publication of results that might otherwise be kept secret, especially for inventions made in industry.

The survey, which is part of the reporting requirements of the EU directive on the protection of biotechnology inventions (98/44) , probed whether delays can be observed in scientific publication on patentable subjects in genetic engineering research and, if so, what policy measures could be taken to remedy negative implications. The summary of the survey results, based on the response of 202 genetic engineering researchers and institutions from industry and public research all over Europe, is presented in annex 1.

The survey shows that academia favours a grace period whereas industry is against it. The report concludes that “efforts to define and harmonise the concept of the grace period should be considered”. In view of the strong increase in international research collaboration and technology transfer, international harmonisation of the grace period is a major issue for science and technology policy. The Research Directorate-General therefore plans to discuss this issue with representatives from the European Research Community, both academia and industrial, in particular in view of the on-going negotiations at the World International Property Organisation ”

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