“Stupid is as stupid does.” On Wednesday, March 20, 2013, the GOP’s charge to balance the Federal Budget scored another victory when the Senate voted to cut an entire ten million dollars worth of National Science Foundation funding that pays for political science research. As clearly expressed by the intended goal of amendment SA 65 to H.R. 933, Republicans like Jeff Flake and Tom Coburn wish "to prohibit the use of funds to carry out the functions of the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, except for research projects that the Director of the National Science Foundation certifies as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States."The obvious political motivation is a view that the Federal government’s role should be limited to providing for national security and ensuring economic development. Quite frankly, the responsibilities of the Federal government go far beyond the national security and economic interests of the United States as stated by the General Welfare clause under Article One, Section Eight of the US Constitution. That said, it is important to remember that we are in an age when democratic revolution is engulfing the Middle East and much of the developing world while the governments of the developed world are being undermined by global economic instability and growing ideological polarization.
Consider the fact that when it comes to legal and financial matters, people tend defer to lawyers and accountants. Consequently, it only makes sense for us to seek the council of relevant professionals when it comes to understanding the role of politics in government. Political science is the discipline that develops the models, theoretical constructs, and intellectual architecture that governments and citizens need to transcend politics in order to achieve improved governance. Instead of cutting a laughable ten million dollars worth of funding, the world’s most powerful democracy should be expanding funding for the field of political science.
Unfortunately, our society seems to regard the field of political science as little more than an academic pursuit. Part of the problem is that our largely science based education system has lead Americans to over focus on numbers while we have also grown extremely shortsighted in our thinking thanks to a variety of other factors. Economics is driven by numbers; political science is not. Economics largely models short-term outcomes; political science models long-term social characteristics. Meanwhile, politics is a fairly accessible subject and most people have their own opinions on the issues of the news cycle, so professional political scientists do not offer unique skills in the eyes of the general public and the economy. As such, there are few private sector jobs available for political scientists doing basic research.
What was once the field of research that strived to understand the intersection of politics and policy has too often become an easy college major used as a springboard to law or business school. Aside from political science professors, journalists, who may or may not have an in-depth understanding of the discipline, and lobbyists, who have client interests in mind, are the ones trying to do the work of political scientists. With academia under pressure to control costs and produce graduates, who can actually expect to earn a living with their degrees, professional media outlets competing against free social media by pandering to viewer impulse, and lobbyist seeking only the interests of their clients, the political science field lacks the economic backing it needs to properly serve its social function.
Unfortunately, political science is not the only academic discipline in jeopardy. There are, in fact, many crucial intellectual disciplines that our society needs, yet such fields of research are neglected by the economy. A prevailing fault of economic thinking has been a view that technological advances occur at a predictable rate, so there is no need to push for the development of innovation as the market will provide what is needed. A great deal of innovation comes from basic research and scientific inquiry by those who study the sciences. Just as there is no political science economy, there is no physics economy, chemistry economy, earth science economy, biology economy, or even computer science economy.
The aforementioned fields exist today, because they are housed in universities and colleges while their research is funded by these professionals begging for grants from governments, research foundations, and private donors. Alternatively, individuals holding professional degrees in these fields find work in businesses where their skills are grossly underutilized and their job is often not to pursue the type of basic research that will lead to the advancement of the scientific models and theories needed for the next technological revolution. From a capitalist perspective, the fact that so many fundamental functions of our modern civilization are funded through socialist channels, instead of economic mechanisms, is disturbing and untenable.
Because our capitalist society never developed the economic mechanisms needed to fund critical intellectual endeavors, the natural sciences and social sciences, such as political science, have been growing increasingly underfunded. The pursuits of these fields more often than not fail to offer immediate, obvious benefits to our society. The fruits of these intellectual endeavors are, however, quite significant. For example, the socioeconomic benefits of quantum mechanics can be seen in LEDs and solid-state lasers, but it took decades before researchers figured out how to turn a bazaar theory into a series of world changing products. In summary, government needs to either fund political science research or fund research on how the private market can pay for the vital contributions of political scientists and other intellectual disciplines.
The economies of the world depend upon innovation to create the new technologies and industries that drive consumption, growth, and job creation. In turn, patents help ensure innovators have an incentive to innovate. Unfortunately, the patent process and the enforcement of patent protections have only grown more complicated with globalization and the advent of the cyber age. For the first time since 1952, Congress made significant revisions to US patent laws with the Patent Reform Act of 2011, but the law did not address many of the critical issues those looking to protect their innovations face. One critical area of concern, which has gone unaddressed, revolves around so-called self-replicating technologies.
On Tuesday, February 19, 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments for a case involving the infringement of a Monsanto patent by a seventy-five year old farmer named Vernon H. Bowman. Monsanto alleges Mr. Bowman violated its patent for Roundup Ready soybean seeds when he planted seed from a grain elevator then saved a portion of the crop for subsequent plantings. The harvested seeds contained the genes protected by Monsanto’s patent. In this particular case, the farmer was likely in the wrong as he did sign an agreement with Monsanto that prohibited him from saving seeds with the Roundup Ready genes when he originally decided to purchase seeds from Monsanto.
Furthermore, the manner in which the Monsanto patent is structured affords the agricultural giant a broad range of patent protections. In fact, one interpretation of Monsanto’s patent is that all seeds found with the patented genes are the property of Monsanto. In tandem, Monsanto’s extremely aggressive pursuit of potential violators creates a situation where this one company is on track to hold a permanent monopoly over the soybean industry. Consequently, it is extremely important for government to find a means of protecting self-replicating technologies without allowing for the automatic creation of monopolies.
How the Supreme Court rules in the Bowman case will determine how patents throughout a variety of industries can be interpreted and enforced. Looking at the interests surrounding the case can reveal what might be done to find a suitable remedy for the conundrum self-replicating technologies create.
Monsanto has an interest in patenting gene technology, so it can recover the capital it invested in the development of the technology and derive a profit as an incentive for future investment. Clearly, this interest is not unique to the agricultural industry.
That said, this particular interest of Monsanto is somewhat diminished as Monsanto has an interest in ensuring farmers use its Roundup herbicide. Without Roundup Ready seeds, farmers cannot use Roundup on their crops. In many respects, Monsanto is double dipping, so direct profits for the Roundup Ready genes are not as necessary as they may be in other examples. After all, McDonalds earns profits on its hamburgers, fries, and drinks, but not on its drive thru’s, dining rooms, and bathrooms.
Meanwhile, the United States government has an interest in protecting the fruits of researchers in order to foster innovation as well as an interest in protecting customers by preventing overly hawkish enforcement of patent protections and by ensuring customers have alternative products to consume, i.e. prevent monopolies.
Complicating the situation is globalization as international patent enforcement is problematic. Truthfully, businesses and other patent holders need clearer options, so they can better deal with violations of their patents. This can only be done, however, if foreign governments respect American patents and patent laws. As such, the US government has an added interest in ensuring patent laws provide reasonable protections to consumers. In other words, Monsanto and other firms cannot be allowed to abuse US patent laws to hold farmers inside and outside of the US hostage; otherwise, foreign governments will be less likely to respect US patent laws and reforms.
Patent laws aimed at self-replicating technologies, therefore, must focus on the innovator’s interests in deriving a reasonable profit and in controlling the propagation of an innovation.
Unfortunately, engineered genes and other biotechnologies often have the added complication of being self-propagating. This means consumers may lose the ability to choose to use a product after they have used it once, as is often the case with Roundup Ready seed after a farmer or neighbor farmer has decided to plant the seed. Alternatively, patent holders may lose the ability to earn profits when any benefit is the result of the unintended use of their product. Fortunately, this distinction means a solution to the conundrum can be derived by differentiating between self-replicating technologies that are easily replicated, software for example, and self-propagating technologies.
Accordingly, US and international patent laws need to be clarified to specifically address self-propagating technologies. One means of providing for all the interests at hand and circumventing a myriad of ethical questions is to disallow the direct patenting of genes and the expression of genes. Instead, patent holders should be granted patents that ensure they have the right to any profits that might be derived from the leasing of the production and the commercial sales of their technologies. In tandem, patent laws for self-propagating technologies should require patent holders to set strict timetables in their leasing agreements that include remedies for any breach of the agreement and a means of terminating the agreement. In the case of the inadvertent propagation of a given technology, patent laws must also clarify when the patent holder is liability for any damages and what remedies the patent holder must take.
The purpose for the differential treatment of self-propagating technology is to ensure innovators consider the potential issues that might arise from a given self-propagating technology before a patent is issued and legal battles become necessary. Meanwhile, revising the law would also clarify when a patent holder has the right to pursue an individual for the use of their innovation and help discourage the widespread misuse of self-propagating technologies that might represent a catastrophic danger if commercialized in a thoughtless manner. Obviously, this adds extra costs and complications to the patent process, so any legislation should be drafted in such a way that the US Patent and Trademark Office is compelled to provide guidance as to what measures would fulfill the necessary criteria. Moreover, patent laws need to be revised to address the numerous issues created by self-propagating technologies, as well as other self-replicating technologies.
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