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Do scientists care about making money?

Aristotle tells a very pleasant story about Thales*: Thales was tired of businessmen looking down on him for his poverty; according to them this went to prove that science was of no use. It is said that one day Thales realized -by his knowledge of the stars- that the harvest of olives would be excellent in the coming season. He then hired all the mills of Miletus for a bargain price, as no one bid against him. When the harvest finally came and everyone was in a rush to use the presses, Thales rented them out at whatever price he pleased making a substantial profit. Thus -according to Aristotle- he proved that scientists can make money if they wish to do so but that their concerns rest somewhere else.

As a young student I was moved by Aristotle’s views of science. But Aristotle was not a scientist. Furthermore, he was a man of means with freedom to do whatever he wanted without having to give explanations to anyone; modern scientists are generally not like that. My own experience tells me that given the choice of making money the vast majority of scientists will go for it eagerly.

But are the descendants of Thales in the same position as his scientific predecessor? Hindsight shows us that some times they are, yet they may be held back by lack of business forethought or at least of a good business advisor.

Monoclonal antibodies are a powerful tool in biomedicine. Their use is so extensive that -as it happens- young students and researchers take them for granted. Monoclonal antibodies are widely used not only for basic research and diagnostic but also to treat several human conditions, from transplant rejection and rheumatoid arthritis to breast cancer (1). Monoclonal antibodies were devised at the Medical Research Council (MRC) laboratories in Cambridge by Milstein and Köhler in 1975 (2).

Monoclonal antibodies were never patented; their creation was made public on a scientific article before the filing of a patent. Because of this, their inventors and the UK scientific system lost millions. How did this happen?

There is a modern, pleasant story -on Aristotle’s line- stating that Milstein didn’t patent his invention “for the good of mankind”. Like the tale about Thales this story doesn’t seem likely. I saw Milstein in a conference once -didn’t meet him personally, just listened to him- and he didn’t strike me as the type of man that would do something like that. But do no take my word for it, the Royal Society -of which Milstein was made a fellow- emphatically denies that story (3).

The most plausible reason for the missed opportunity was a lack of communication between the MRC-LMB where Milstein and Köhler worked, the MRC authorities, and The National Research Development Corporation, the tech-transfer organisation at the time (4). No doubt there was also lack of business awareness in the lab, of which scientists were not to blame as they were not taught the likes of marketing at any point. This was a problem in the 70s and still remains a problem these days. It doesn’t matter how innovative an academic basic science lab is, its members seldom stop to carefully consider the commercial applications of their work. The Aristotelian view of science is not helping academic research and needs to be debunked. It would be for the common good if scientists were trained to recognise commercial opportunities at an early stage. It is also important for them to cooperate closely with a partner who understands both their work and its possible applications.

 

*Thales -like most Pre-Socratics- should be considered a scientist rather a philosopher in the modern sense.

 

 

(1) Protein Cell 1 (2010) p319–330

(2) Nature 256 (1975) p495-497

(3) Biogr. Memes Fell. R. Soc. 51 (2005) p267-289

(4) New Scientist 104 (1984) p39

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