Sharing by Law: Open Science Takes a Legal Approach

Jul 5, 2017
Erin Howe

Professor Aled EdwardsProfessor Aled Edwards A partnership between the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) at the University of Toronto and U of T’s Faculty of Law has yielded a new concept that could change the way scientists share research tools.

Aled Edwards, who leads the SGC, is lead author of a recent paper that applies the concept of a legal trust to open research reagents ­— substances that scientists use to test biological hypotheses and give insight into potential new therapies. Under this model, the researchers who receive reagents would become ‘trustees’ obligated to treat the materials as public goods. The article is published in Science Translational Medicine.

“Academic researchers use public funds to create reagents to use the lab. Currently any reagent created at any University is legally the property of the institution and is shared only under contract. Although this is the status quo, many of us believe science shouldn’t belong to an institution or an individual, but to society and that our work should be viewed as a public good,” says Edwards, who is also a professor in the Departments of Medical Biophysics and Molecular Genetics and an expert in open science drug discovery.

Reagents created in university labs have been the legal property of the institutions where they were created since the 1980s. The idea was to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from universities to companies to create societal impact. Universities then created process and legal mechanisms to meet their obligations to protect their intellectual property, which has hampered researchers’ ability to share.

The traditional model for disseminating reagents is through what’s called a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA). These contracts establish conditions for the use of the material, provide legal protection for whoever provided it, and establish a chain of custody over the reagent.

Edwards says most Canadian universities lose money on technology transfer, even before accounting for legal fees. In 2010, the last year the numbers were public, licensing income from intellectual property generated $57 million for Canadian universities — but the cost of running the technology transfer offices that negotiate the agreements was $55 million. He argues if one monetized the time taken to execute the thousands of MTAs that are signed in Canada, it would translate to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

“If we give away reagents, there’s absolutely a risk that somebody might use it and invent something — but is that such a bad thing?” says Edwards. “Don’t we want to help the world? Taxpayers pay for our work, so don’t they want the knowledge they helped fund to be shared?”

To design the new framework for sharing this intellectual property, Edwards’ team at the SGC collaborated with senior students from the Faculty of Law, law professor Simon Stern and lawyers from Gilberts LLP.

SGC researchers work to discover new medicines through a public-private partnership. All of the research done by the SGC is made readily available to the scientific community, no strings attached. Rachel Harding, a post-doctoral fellow at the SGC, is the first known biomedical scientist to open her notebooks to the world in real time through her blog, Lab Scribbles.

“The SGC is one of the pioneers of the open science movement, and U of T has been tremendously supportive,” says Edwards. “Open science is one the SCG’s core values — we never patent anything and all of our data goes into the public domain without restriction. Keeping knowledge secret isn’t in anyone’s interest, neither public nor industry. Over the past decade the pharmaceutical sector has invested well over $100 million dollars into our open science “never patent” project. There’s a reason for this — open science makes business sense.”

Over time, Edwards says he hopes the idea of legal trust for sharing science will catch on. The next step is to spread the word about the concept.


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