The privatization of public knowledge is a recurring theme in the modern scientific enterprise. Science by its very nature is a collective and historical enterprise that builds on previous knowledge. This collective knowledge represents a “scientific commons”. The creation of new scientific knowledge is risky, explorative process, and it is a priori not clear what the most translationally impactful avenues will be. Often it can take many decades before the impact of new scientific knowledge is felt by society at large. Even seemingly arcane academic discoveries like the theory of special relativity eventually find their way into society and technology – the Global Positioning System (GPS) used by the location software in smartphones require special relativistic correction to clocks on satellites in order to function accurately.
However, every once in a while, it is clear that some knowledge or invention has translational and/or commercial potential. In our current system, this know-how is immediately privatized. This is not a passive process, but instead actively promoted by neoliberal science policy. One the most egregious examples of this, detailed by Yasha Levine in his book Surveillance Valley, was the privatization of the internet. The internet is a family of connected in computer networks that has its origin into earlier networks, a military-based network called ARPANET which was then expanded into a larger university-based computer network NSFNET run by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In the 1980s, Stephen Wolff, a neoliberal-minded manager who was in charge of the NSFNET project, invested significant amounts of government money to build the hardware infrastructure that form the backbone of the modern internet and then gave it away to private interests. The situation was summarized by Levine:
“The Internet is perhaps one of the most valuable public inventions of the twentieth century, and decisions made by a few unelected officials in the federal bureaucracy set the Internet on the certain path to privatization. There was no real public debate, no discussion, no dissension, and no oversight. It was just given away, before anyone outside this bureaucratic bubble realized what was at stake.”
The life sciences, too, are subject to the distorting power of neoliberal logics. The process of identifying promising avenues for developing new medical treatments is an arduous process. It takes years and years of scientific labor funded by the public to identify a promising direction for drug development. But at this final stage, precisely when it finally become clear that a drug is in sight, this publicly-created knowledge is transferred to private hands –big pharma or biotechnology start-ups. As a result, publicly created knowledge is appropriated to create drugs that are than priced to maximize profits instead of social welfare.
Such scientific enclosures, far from being a one-time event, are actually promoted by current laws such as the Bayh-Dole Act. Before passage of Bayh-Dole in 1980, inventors and inventions made using federal funding belonged to the federal government. The Bayh-Dole act completely inverted this situation by allowing universities, small businesses, or non-profits to own and patent discoveries and inventions from federally funded research. Corporate interests and modern universities are big proponents of the Bayh-Dole Act because it allows them to privatize, commercialize, and profit from tax-payer funded research.
The Bayh-Dole act has also had an insidious effect on scientific culture by blending the line between science and profit making, helping transform universities and many scientists into pseudo-commercial entities obsessed with accumulating intellectual property. To paraphrase the cultural historian Alan Trachtenberg, we have seen “the incorporation of American science”, a process that has resulted in deep cultural changes in the institutions and attitudes, concerning the relationship between scientific knowledge, commodification, and social good.