Saturday, October 09, 2010

Science and money

Picture from Christian Science Monitor.
As I suppose like many, I was surprised to learn that the 2010 Nobel prize winner for Chemistry Richard Heck lived in the Philippines -- to be precise, in a humble bungalow in Quezon City with his Filipina wife. He seems to be genuinely affable man and I hope to meet him some day.

I caught a brief telephone interview with him on ANC, just a day after the announcement of the award. I noticed that news anchor Tony Velasquez padded quite carefully around the man, as though not sure what to ask. Was he afraid to make a faux pas?

The kicker came, as I half-expected it would, when Velasquez asked Heck: "Did you make any money out of your discoveries?"

Now that, my friends, was a laugh.

That question about sums up the crassness prevalent in our way of thinking nowadays. If you can't make money out of it, it ain't worth doing. Hence, we have plenty of local programs extolling the virtues of business and entrepreneurship, but hardly any about scientific research. Not that making money is a bad thing, but it shouldn't be the main thing, much less the only thing. Some things you just shouldn't put a price on.

Coincidentally, this year's Nobel prize-winner for Physics, Andre Geim, gave an interview which sheds further light on the subject. Asked why he and his partner didn't patent graphene, he answered:

We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, "We've got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?" It's quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, "We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it's really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us." That's a direct quote.

I considered this arrogant comment, and I realized how useful it was. There was no point in patenting graphene at that stage. You need to be specific: you need to have a specific application and an industrial partner. Unfortunately, in many countries, including this one, people think that applying for a patent is an achievement. In my case it would have been a waste of taxpayers' money.

So there you go: the lawyers will find a way to mess it all up.

That said, I'm sufficienty inspired by these two Nobel winners I want to throw myself further into research. Yes, even at this late stage.

1 comment:

  1. in the transcript of the phone interview with Richard Heck on, they misspelled Filipino with Philippino