Manchester Manifesto asks: Who owns science?

A familiar issue in innovation policy – patenting and the commercialisation of scientific knowledge – resurfaces today in a so-called Manchester Manifesto.

The manifesto has 50 signatories, led by the moral philosopher John Harris and Nobel Prize winning biologist John Sulston, both from the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation (iSEI) at the University of Manchester. Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate and Chair of Manchester’s Brooks World Poverty Institute, is also among the signatories.

The ‘Manchester Manifesto’ calls for a reassessment of the current system of patents and intellectual property regulated by national and international laws. The signatories say the system is in desperate need of change because it excludes poorer people from access to essential medicines and expertise.

They say profit should not override the needs of the public, even though it is currently the primary reward for research and development.

Sulston, who was a leader of the International Human Genome project team while working at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Centre, has been a vocal critic of a Myriad Genetics, the US biopharmaceutical company, for patenting of two genes closely associated with breast and ovarian cancer.

“It shocks many people when they realise that even our genes fall under intellectual property law,” Sulston says. “Genes are naturally occurring things, not inventions, and part of humanity’s rich heritage.”

While these are well-worn arguments from liberal bio-ethicists, they deserve another outing.

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