Q&A: Dr. Richard Gold on why open science partnerships could reverse declining research productivity

Sebastian Leck
March 24, 2021

Spending on scientific research has been rising for the last 50 years while, at the same time, researcher productivity has been dropping. That’s what Dr. Richard Gold, law professor and Director of the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy at McGill University, argues in a new paper that positions open science partnerships as a potential solution.

Gold, who is cross-appointed to McGill’s Department of Human Genetics, sifted through historical research on intellectual property to make the case that innovation systems have become less efficient over the last half century.

He identifies three factors that have contributed to a lack of research productivity over time: the increasing complexity of scientific research, mismatched incentives for researchers, and a “balkanization of knowledge” that leads to replication of efforts and a lack of information sharing.

Research Money spoke to Dr. Gold this week to better understand his research and why he believes open science partnerships are the key to creating a well-functioning innovation system.

You say in your paper that Canada’s productivity per researcher has been declining over time, yet the cost of doing research is increasing. Why would that be happening? It seems counter-intuitive.

It seems counter intuitive because we are obviously flooded with all kinds of innovations across all kinds of fields. We just got a vaccine in record time. And so it seems bizarre.

One reason is simply that the easy stuff was easy to find and didn't cost a whole lot. With the work done in the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, a person or a small group of people with some equipment, but not terribly expensive equipment, could answer those questions. But as you plow through, the next level of question requires more precision, more knowledge, etc., and so you need bigger teams, you need more equipment. So there's just the increase in cost.

The second aspect is the fact that our incentive system doesn't provide incentives to actually be novel. Journals track how many times an article is cited, but they do it over a two year time period. So they said, okay, how many citations to an article do we get in our journal within two years of publication? What that sets up is an incentive for people to publish articles that will garner citations in two years.

The problem is that really innovative stuff takes much longer to get out there, because it's hitting people in different fields. There's evidence that it's at least five years and up to nine years before you actually see the bump. That type of research doesn't get counted in these impact factors. And therefore you get relegated to lower end journals, which means that in terms of getting promoted and getting research grants, you're not going to do as well. While there's some researchers, obviously, who don't care or they're tenured and they do whatever, there's still this huge incentive.

On the patent side, you've got this huge increase starting in the 1980s of the number of patents issued, but not the underlying innovation. That means they're taking whatever work is being done and translating it into more patents without increasing the underlying knowledge gain. And over time, what that does is that it provides an incentive to do the types of work that will garner a patent quickly with the minimum set of resources. We're moving resources from taking high-risk, first-in-class type inventions to boring, less innovative stuff. And so the patent statistics all show this.

And then the last component that I looked at, and again, there might be others, is simply the role of the university in patenting. Since the 1980s, we've been encouraging universities to patent and there's been an active debate since then about whether that actually helps innovation or not. There have been some large grants, for example, held up for years simply because the parties couldn't arrange the right people. There might not have been IP at the end. You don't know when you start, but the mere fact that you have to negotiate about it has stopped or slowed down the beginning of research. So if you slow down research by two years, you're decreasing your productivity.

What do you mean by "balkanization" of knowledge?

If you think about pharmaceuticals and Company A is investigating a new drug, it goes through Phase 1, Phase 2 clinical trials. And It doesn't work after having spent many millions of dollars.

Company B comes up with the exact same molecule. They don't know the company A’s data already, right. So they go ahead and do the research, putting patients at risk, but also spending millions of dollars. And then somebody else, company C, comes along, right? Because we don't know what everybody else is doing, we're duplicating research rather than thinking about this as we should. Let's just do it once. And then once we see that this kind of drug works OK, then you can go off and compete and come up with your own drugs. There's a benefit to having different drugs in the same class, but it makes no sense for us to be funding this research over and over again.

Over the last 10 years or so, there have been movements that have asked pharmaceutical companies, for example, before they do a clinical trial to put what they're doing in a database. So at least people know about it. But compliance is not all that great. The reason is they want their competitors to go through that cost and waste time. It's to my advantage, if I've spent a hundred million [dollars], that my competitor also does it. The problem is that it doesn't help the rest of them.

So here we have knowledge balkanized at an early enough stage that people could combine the knowledge in a useful way, but they face barriers. So they either don't do it, or they don't even know about it.

How do you define an open science partnership?

It's at least two parties, usually more, that could be in the same sector, but often are not. So it's often a public private partnership. So a university is usually involved, one or more industry players are involved and they're trying to solve a particular set of problems. The Structural Genomics Consortium, when it was established, was to develop the 3D structures of proteins and so it involved multiple pharmaceutical companies, multiple universities and research institutes. And it involved public funders, such as Genome Canada and the Wellcome Trust.

The rules of the game were that the knowledge goes to everyone at the same time, not only within the consortium, but outside. So there is no balkanization and negotiations over IP fall away. It's a public private partnership generally, though it doesn't have to be, with some set of defined parameters about what problems they're trying to solve and rules of engagement, such as we use everybody's builds within the consortium, but everything is distributed to the whole world without limitations.

You see this as a kind of counterweight to what's happening due to the proprietary patents?

Let's say it's got two universities and five companies. One way to structure is to negotiate an agreement, a consortium agreement where we develop a drug, we might develop a new chip, whatever, and we're going to get IP on it. And here's who's going to control the IP and how it's going to be licensed and how we do it. We're going to maintain trade secrets and there are going to be rules between me and you...The end result is a set of products we hope that are patented and make money. And then the money is somehow distributed.

The alternative would be the same parties, but we say we're just doing this and we're going to find something new. It's going to go out to the world. We're going to build on each other's knowledge. We might bring other people in because there really aren't any barriers. If someone else wants to contribute, that's fine. If they want a sample, that's fine. And once we produce our product, then you can say here's a market opportunity.

Now that I've been part of the consortium, I can see a way forward. I can come up with a new drug. I come up with a new product using the publicly available knowledge.

How would you deal with the issue of free riders, i.e. companies that benefit from the findings of an open science partnership without investing themselves?

There's a possibility of free ridership to a certain extent, but not fully. I'll give you the example of the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. It partners with the SGC (Structural Genomics Consortium) on an open part of the larger open project, but here to create a prototype, which is basically a molecule to attach to the WDR-5 protein, which is a completely new un-investigated protein.

These papers were open, the molecules were open. Anybody could have done it, but OICR did it first, and eventually entered into Canada's largest pre-clinical drug deal with Celgene. It was $40 million up front and up to a billion if it turned out to be successful with a lot of money coming back into Canada for the research.

Why did OICR get this money if anybody else could have? It's because OICR was primed to take this knowledge and turn it into a drug, saving at least a year, likely two years, on drug development.

Because if you're another company following this happening among other things, somebody has to have the idea, "Oh, well, that might be interesting." And they have to read up on it. They have to make a business case. Then they have to educate their people about it. They wouldn't have access to all the other knowledge that is within a group and it would've taken them a year or two just to start. So they could have reached the same drug, but being first in class meant that there's a lot of value. There's a whole bunch of tacit knowledge that no one has figured out how to share other than working together.

What policy measures would promote open science partnerships?

Universities, for whatever reason, have bought into more patenting. And so they have TTOs and they will sign agreements. So the solution is simply not to impose that on everyone. There is a desire among a whole bunch of researchers and funders to do open science partnerships, but the university gets in the way and imposes its barriers or doesn't allocate resources to support these efforts. It takes time to figure out how to do this.

So that's one aspect. The other is funders, both philanthropy and government. It's simply to set up funding that's directed to open science. You don't want everything to be done this way, right? There should be specific open science calls. It sends a message that open science is a viable model if you're willing to do this. If you want to patent go off and do it and go through the normal competition, but here's another opportunity we create.

What would a well-functioning innovation system look like to you?

I think we need to be much more open or have many more options available. Some OSPs will work well and help reduce cost, etc. But I see the logic of when you're trying to perfect something and you have high costs, you're going to need IP.

I can imagine all these different structures co-habitating. Some of them will turn out not to work and that's fine. But we need to reinvigorate our innovation system and the models we're using within it in order to solve some of these problems. I believe that if firms and researchers get together in different ways, if they're going to be open-minded, they will come up with solutions. It might not be the OSP (open science partnership). It might be something I'm not even contemplating that will reduce the costs and address risks. And that will increase the productivity.

To me, having more different experiments in models is what's important. But we've been going in the wrong direction since the 1980s. We've been going to one model. And while it works well in some areas, no one model works well everywhere.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.