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August 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 34

Patents and papers

You devoted an editorial to the topic of global scientific publishing and economic growth (C&EN, June 14, page 5). This was tied to an article by Michael Heylin in the same issue titled "Science Is Becoming Truly Worldwide" (page 38), which discussed the trends in science and technology papers originating from different countries, using data from a joint National Science Foundation-Chemical Abstracts Service study.

Heylin reported that NSF cannot explain the small increase in U.S. papers considering the growth in R&D expenditures. An obvious explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that their study focused entirely on papers and ignored patents. From this article, the total number of U.S. papers in science and technology in 2001 was 200,900. Now consider that the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office reports that it receives nearly 300,000 patent applications per year.

While I do not possess information on growth rates in patent applications, I would suspect, given the sheer numbers, that this might hold a clue regarding the disconnect between R&D spending and numbers of papers. That is, patents are being filed instead of papers being submitted.

Here is a particularly clear example of the importance of patents. In our chemistry program at Mount Royal College, we have enjoyed a long-term teaching collaboration with our librarians to instruct students in searching for information in chemistry. Recently, at the prompting of industrial colleagues, we introduced patent searching into the library program for engineering chemistry. Some of my students this year worked on a group library research project into the synthesis of the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto sells as the product Roundup. This group found dozens of patents on individual reactions pertaining to Monsanto's glyphosate synthesis, but no scientific papers over the past 20 years.

This makes sense--why would a profit-making corporation publish a paper on a valuable reaction its researchers discovered? The company benefits from the protection that a patent confers. It gets nothing from publishing the paper. My students get a strong lesson into intellectual property and where to find the truly valuable information.

Patents are the primary mode of first reporting a potentially profitable discovery. And there are many other discoveries that are never reported but are guarded as trade secrets. What I would suggest is that numbers of papers cannot be used as the sole measure of research and development output. The creation of wealth through R&D does not depend on having more papers, but on the application and commercialization of new technology, often coupled with the competitive advantage that intellectual property ownership brings. It is quite possible that the future is brighter than your editorial leads one to believe.

Lawton Shaw
Calgary, Alberta


Of stem cells and ethics

While Susan Morrissey's article "Stem Cell Research" treated many aspects of human embryonic stem cell studies, including their funding, it made only passing reference to the deep moral and ethical issues that underlie this whole debate--issues on which a deep gulf now divides our society (C&EN, July 19, page 16). The failure to confront these issues is perhaps understandable in a technical publication. However, it will do little to bring about real understanding or resolution. Instead, it fosters the view that the ends (or the perceived ends or the hoped-for ends) justify the means.

The first question is the nature of humanity. Are we simply the latest branch on the evolutionary tree, no different in essence from any other animal species? Or, perchance, are we unique, either because some gradual evolutionary change in degree has finally become a difference in kind, or because, as some of us still believe, we are made in God's image? If we are unique, then the taking of human life (in vitro or in vivo) is a serious matter indeed. And of course in most societies it is a serious matter.

Second, when does human life begin? This is tricky because it has implications for many controversial and increasingly common practices: abortion, in vitro fertilization, pre-implantation genetic screening, and embryonic stem cell research.

What one desires to see in terms of policy can color one's assessment. Many answers are possible, but it is hard to find a clear point between conception and birth where a fundamental change takes place signaling the advent of "humanness." Logically, then, human life would seem to begin when the full genetic make-up of the individual is determined. Our society is, however, schizophrenic on this question, performing heroic in utero surgery to save one baby and aborting another of the same gestational age.

Finally, when is it right to sacrifice one life for the possible benefit of another? How do you weigh the value of embryonic lives against those of individuals suffering from Parkinsonism or Alzheimer's disease?

These are vital and difficult questions. As a responsible segment of society, chemists cannot myopically ignore them in a wild euphoria over research that is "just too exciting" or the potential for a "medical revolution." Nor can they be brushed aside with vague statements about "strict ethical oversight." They must be addressed.

Constance Kalbach Walker
Durham, N.C.



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