Monday, April 10, 2006

The Scientist as entrepreneur

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation released a study today, entitled, The Knowledge Filter and Economic Growth: The Role of Scientist Entrepreneurship. It indicates that that basic research does pay off for future economic growth. Businesses are frequently started by the researchers to exploit their findings. The press release summarizes the main conclusion of the study by saying:

"The study by Indiana University researchers reveals that cancer scientists,
in addition to commercializing their research through licensing, are starting
new businesses, which largely go unrecorded by existing innovation
commercialization tracking systems. In fact, more than one in four patenting
National Cancer Institute (NCI) scientists within the researchersÂ’ dataset has
started a new firm. These scientist-launched start-ups are the sleeping giant of
university commercialization."

This doesn't surprise me that much. Basic research is always what it says it is. Basic. Our imaginations are the only limitation of how much we can build on it. But, there is something that is missing, and that worries me very much.

Not alltherapeuticss are patentable. Psychotherapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, are all examples of therapies that cannot be patented. If we focus our research on patentable therapies, other, often less expensive, treatments go undeveloped. For example, it is widely accepted that psychotherapy reduces risk of relapse in adults with either depression or anxiety. Consequently, the preferred treatment is combined pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. Yet, cognitive-behavior therapy, a well-researched treatment for depression and anxiety, has remained largely unchanged since it was originally proposed by Albert Ellis in the 1950's. Both Meichenbaum and Mahoney laid out the basic research in the 1970's. Beck's classic Cognitive Therapy of Depression was published in 1979.

Since then, federal support for research in behavioral health has eroded and there's been little progress. The money has been in drug research because that is profitable. If we continue to focus on what is easily commercialized, we will continue to see the erosion of non-drug therapies. Ultimately, we need more support for basic research in areas that are not commercial.

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