|Image from here|
Incentives have generally proven troublesome in the context of the intellectual property regime. Right from questioning whether the correct amount of incentives are being given in terms of 20 year exclusionary periods (See for eg, 8th and 9th para of my previous post on Patents and Innovation here), to more fundamental questions of how much, if at all, external incentives are required in the first place. (See for eg, Eric Johnson’s paper on IP and the Incentive Fallacy). While the IP regime mostly refers to methods of appropriation of financial incentives, it also in a more limited manner recognizes other incentives such as gains in reputation.
While trying to find panaceas for the laundry list of problems with the IP regime, various forms of the prize system are often touted as the most viable alternatives/parallels to incentivizing innovation. Unfortunately, it appears that prize systems too fall prey to the problems of recognizing and awarding non-financial incentives too. At least, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden seems to be facing such issues.
One of the world’s leading scientists, Dr Rongxiang Xu has recently filed a suit against the Nobel Assembly for statements it made while awarding the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Sir John Gurdon and Dr Shinya Yamanaka in October 2012. The prize was awarded to them for ‘showing that mature cells can be reprogrammed to become pluripotent, with the ability to grow into different tissues in the body’.
However, apparently Dr Xu discovered regenerative cells in 1984 and “(t)his was confirmed to be keratin-19 positive stem cell after 2000 (US patent 6991813B2) during his study of burn treatments, which has benefited over 20 million burn victims in 73 countries.” (See here for source). The suit has been filed in a California court, for libel and unfair competition.
According to this website, “Dr Xu claimed that his good reputation in the community was defamed by the conduct and the statement published by the defendants (Nobel Assembly). The suit alleges that the Nobel Assembly has been successful in garnering media attention for their Nobel Prize announcements in essentially every major news organizations and publications world-wide, proving that they can affect the perception of an individual by misreporting information.” In relation to the award, the Nobel Prize jury stated, “Their findings have revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop,” and “created new opportunities to study diseases and develop methods for diagnosis and therapy.”
Dr Xu believes that this is detrimental to his own reputation as he already discovered this over a decade ago. He stated, “I am concerned about the statements made by the Nobel Assembly. I seek clarification regarding the issue of ‘pluripotency by reprogramming’ as it has been incorrectly stated and this can impact the safety of human life. I hope the Nobel Assembly can clarify what its ‘pluripotency’ means, is it completely conforming with the nature of human life? Or, is it the pluripotency of human cancer cells.”
While my knowledge in this area is next to nothing, there’s a certain compilation of statements that make this seem very curious to me. Firstly, Dr Xu describes himself as the founder of “human body regenerative restoration science”. And then, the Nobel Assembly claims that they have never heard of him (!).
According to PR Newswire, this is difficult to believe as this would mean the Nobel Assembly not only missed the US patents involved here, but also completely missed his exclusive interviews by Sweden’s Ministry for Education and Science and Sweden’s national television covering human body regenerative science. They say, ‘The Nobel Assembly’s lack of acknowledgment is difficult to fathom considering the fact that Dr. Xu has a lifetime achievement in in situ regeneration research and is known worldwide as a pioneer in the field of regenerative medicine.”
While this may be the first suit against the Nobel Assembly, this is certainly not the first time that the award has been controversial. In fact, we’ve covered a controversy by the same committee just a few years ago here. Brij Agarwal gives some more examples over here. (And of course, this is without going into the more controversial Nobel Peace Prize awardees)
Controversy aside, this does raise a question in my mind with regard to incentive structures in innovation policy. If true, this means that for one of the world’s most important discoveries, reputation turns out to be a big factor in terms of how the scientist would like to be ‘rewarded’! It’s no surprise that scientists do a lot of work for peer recognition as well as for scientific curiousity — but perhaps we should start focusing on how to tweak innovation systems to make more use of these incentives and felicitate them more appropriately.