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Give me six months to think about this and I'll get back to you.” Of course, six months later the deal was no longer on the table.
The other problem was that members were afraid that they would be punished for voting “yes.” “Even if it is a good idea, this deal is so novel that somebody's bound to criticize me in the pages of Nature.” This problem only got worse after the representative from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) gave her opinion. She completely ignored the Incyte proposal and suggested that her agency might consider a grant application instead. People asked themselves, “If NIH won't venture an opinion, why should I?”
WHAT AGENCIES CAN DO
Both of the foregoing problems involved a failure of leadership. Society needs to decide—in advance—what types of transactions it wants. And it needs to give people the confidence to say “yes” if somebody goes out and obtains a suitable offer. Neither of these things is likely to happen as long as saying “yes” requires a personal decision by 600 individual members.
I believe that funding agencies have a role here. However, it is not a traditional one. Deciding whether a particular transaction is in society's interest is not like peer review. You cannot answer it by appealing to scientific merit. Instead, the agency has to decide whether it has enough money to fund a particular experiment and, if not, how many rights it is willing to give the private sector to get the job done. You can even imagine a day when NIH shows up at negotiations between the private sector and the academics and says, “I'll chip in some money if you loosen these restrictions.” That will require some heroic changes, but it is not fundamentally unreasonable. In fact, NIH has already become much more willing to write regulations that tell people to make sure that any private-sector deals include particular provisions. So they are getting into a hortatory mode.
Finally, the idea of doing new types of private–public deals is not a theoretical subject. My own experience is that industry will stand in line to talk to you. As soon as we talked to Incyte, Celera got jealous and asked to get involved. In the end, we had three or four firms offering to help. So these deals are feasible. It can be done. The only question is whether individual scientists feel that they have a green light to do them. If you look at the statistics, individual scientists originate most grant proposals, put together the most exclusive license deals, and create most start-up companies. So my final advice is that the funding agencies need to decide which deals are desirable, announce some clear guidelines, and then stand back. The scientists will do the rest.