Intellectual property and
its place in science curricula

Published January 05 2017


How many of you can identify with one of these situations? You are working with a commercial kit in the lab and having issues with the kit performing as expected. Your thoughts come around to the reagents in the kit, but the documentation has limited information about the kit’s components. Or, in order to stretch your lab’s budget, you attempt to replicate solutions or buffers in a kit from your own store of reagents, but your mix doesn’t produce the same type of results. In both cases, a call to the company’s technical service help gets you the reply that they cannot tell you all of the specific reagents in the kit because the composition is proprietary.

Consider another situation new employees face when they enter the workforce. Before they can enter the lab, they must sign a nondisclosure agreement. What is this and what does it have to do with the job?

These examples all have a corporate component in common. To some people, proprietary information and nondisclosure agreements may appear to have elements of secrecy and conspiracy to suppress information. What is it about commercial entities that requires such secrecy? It can be summed up in two words: intellectual property.

Intellectual property, or IP, is what gives a company a competitive edge in the marketplace. As educators, we often talk about the value of openly sharing research through publication and how the peer-review system helps to keep us honest. Publishing is the norm for academic research, but publishing in the industry arena is less common. Divulging the proprietary ingredients that help a kit to perform so well or disclosing information on company projects gives away a company’s intellectual property.

One of the biggest gaps academic faculty have in preparing students for careers in industry is that most academics have had little or no experience working in a commercial setting. We do our best to make sure students are properly prepared to work in a laboratory setting. But intellectual property is a topic that rarely is discussed formally within the undergraduate or graduate curriculum, partly because many faculty do not know the subject well themselves.

What is IP? Simply put, IP can be anything that is a creation of the mind. While scientific discoveries and innovations certainly can fall into this category, intellectual property also can be literary or artistic works, industrial designs or trademarks, to name a few examples. Often ideas are developed into tangible substances or devices that serve a particular role or purpose (inventions). But IP also can be a process used for manufacturing or production or even a business practice.

Ways to protect IP

If an inventor or the IP owner wishes to protect his or her ideas or inventions, a number of strategies can be used. Keeping the IP from competitors can be as simple as holding the information privately as a trade secret. Most people are familiar with famous trade secrets, such as the formula for Coca-Cola or Colonel Sander’s 11 herbs and spices for finger-lickin’-good fried chicken. Generally, the only real protection for a trade secret is that as long as the IP is held internally in a company, competitors cannot take advantage of it. If the trade secret somehow is released to competitors or the public, the proverbial cat then is out of the bag. Anyone can take advantage of that information. The originator of that trade secret may no longer have a competitive advantage and may lose out in the marketplace if competitors begin using that IP.

An individual or a group of inventors can file an application for a patent, which, if approved, will give the patent holder exclusive rights and protections. To be approved, a patent application must describe the subject matter and demonstrate that the invention is novel, has utility and is not obvious to a person skilled in the art (someone who would regularly use the item).

Unlike with trade secrets, once a patent is granted, the information within the patent becomes freely available to the public. However, although the information is now public, a patent prevents anyone, except the owner, from using the subject matter for a period of up to 20 years. Essentially, no one but the patent assignee can produce, use or sell the patented subject matter. Anyone wishing to use, make or sell the item or invention must request permission from the patent owner. The assignee can grant permission to others by issuing a contract outlining the terms of usage, which usually includes fees to be paid to the patent owner for licensing or royalties. After the patent expires, the patent holder loses the exclusive ownership rights. At that point, anyone may make use of the information in the patent without compensating the patent holder.

As patents begin to approach their expiration date and limit of protection, a patent holder may seek to extend the life of patented inventions by making improvements to the original invention and pursuing additional new patents that protect the improvement of the original invention. There are a few caveats to this though: Any improvements must be significant and nonobvious. Making a simple change is not enough to warrant issuing a new patent, and patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have the final say.

IP course for scientists

The concern here is that discussions about IP are hardly ever introduced in the undergraduate and graduate curricula, and most students, especially at smaller universities or colleges, never even have heard of IP. Undergraduate science majors are drilled continually about the importance of properly documenting experimental procedures and data in their lab notebooks. But students rarely truly understand the importance of fully recording their work until they are employed in a professional environment where documentation is an essential part of the job. Recent graduates often are surprised by the amount of time they spend documenting their efforts compared with the time actually spent working at the bench.

So how do we better prepare these scientists? While IP is not a common topic in most science curricula, the typically heavy course requirements for science majors often prevent undergraduates from taking business courses. Therefore, most science students have little appreciation or understanding of business terminology, corporate structure, basic accounting practices or marketing strategies when they graduate. Advising students to take a business class or two as electives is one way to help them become more aware. Another option that my department took was to create a business concentration for one of our undergraduate degrees. This requires students to take several business courses; the flip side is that some science content is sacrificed.

When my university began exploring possibilities for new graduate offerings to support the chemical and life science industry in our region, it became obvious to us that IP was a topic area these employers felt was important. We developed an IP course specifically for scientists that has been well received by both students and employers. Students in the masters of business administration program at our institution will have the option of taking this course in the future. I expect that having a blend of scientists and business professionals in the course will lead to some thought-provoking discussions.

We only have scratched the surface, but I believe this is something we as educators should consider emphasizing more in our science curricula.

Ben Caldwell Ben Caldwell teaches “Intellectual Property in the Scientific Setting” at Missouri Western State University, where he is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and dean of graduate studies.