Joe Stiglitz on Claims on Knowledge & Wealth
|October 27, 2013||Posted by Staff under Editorials|
This 2013 excerpt is from the New York Times of July 14 by Joseph E. Stiglitz.
In the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, the US Supreme Court ruled, unanimously, that human genes cannot be patented, though synthetic DNA, created in the laboratory, can be.
Gene tests can actually be administered at low cost -— a person can in fact have all 20,000 of her genes sequenced for about $1,000, to say nothing of much cheaper tests for a variety of specific pathologies. Myriad, however, charged about $4,000 for comprehensive testing on just two genes.
After recovering somewhat from a 30 percent drop in the wake of the court ruling, Myriad’s share price is still nearly 20 percent below what it was beforehand.
The drug industry, as always, claimed that without patent protection, there would be no incentives for research and all would suffer. Yet this and similar patents prevented the development of better tests. And the two genes would likely have been isolated (“discovered,” in Myriad’s terminology) soon anyway, as part of the global Human Genome Project.
All knowledge is based on prior knowledge, and by making prior knowledge less available, innovation is impeded. Myriad’s own discovery — like any in science — used technologies and ideas that were developed by others. Had that prior knowledge not been publicly available, Myriad could not have done what it did.
Most of the key innovations — from the basic ideas underlying the computer, to transistors, to lasers, to the discovery of DNA — were not motivated by pecuniary gain. They were motivated by the quest for knowledge.
Improved health and technology accounts for a good part of the explosive economic growth since the 19th century. Rulings that impede access to health both create inequality and hamper growth more generally.