Deep down, we all want to be Bond villains


I wrote earlier about the latest contretemps in the CRISPR community, and it turns out that I was a paragon of restraint and moderation in my comments. I am not accustomed to this role. I will try harder in the future. For now, I’ll try to turn to turn to Michael Eisen as a model. His review of the very same issue starts this way:

There is something mesmerizing about an evil genius at the height of their craft, and Eric Lander is an evil genius at the height of his craft.

Lander’s recent essay in Cell entitled “The Heroes of CRISPR” is his masterwork, at once so evil and yet so brilliant that I find it hard not to stand in awe even as I picture him cackling loudly in his Kendall Square lair, giant laser weapon behind him poised to destroy Berkeley if we don’t hand over our patents.

I had to laugh, and now I’m wondering what actor will play the Bond villain modeled after Lander.


  1. Athywren - This Thing Is Just A Thing says

    For a moment, I was going to argue that trying to usurp patents might not be quite so terrible as to reach Bond villainy levels, but then I remembered that the Quantum of Solace baddie was buying up land containing large amounts of water in otherwise drought-ridden nations in order to gouge prices… so… maybe it fits.
    To be fair, the perks of Bond villainy are pretty awesome – who wouldn’t want to spend their days stroking fluffy kitties and being devious? That’s two of my favourite things right there.

  2. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Thanks, Athywren, for destroying my dreams of Bond villainy.

    Damned cat allergy.

  3. Athywren - This Thing Is Just A Thing says

    @Maroon, 3
    Bwaaahahahaha! Aaaaaahahahahaha! Muahahaha! etc!
    *throws cats*

    …ah, see, this is where my own dreams of Bond villainy fall down. That was fun, but now I feel terrible.
    I’m very sorry for that.
    *retrieves cats*
    *brushes cat hair away*
    *provides anti-allergy medication*

  4. dick says

    It looks like the Nobel Prize has reached the point where it no longer serves its original purpose, because science has become such a collaborative exercise, compare to when the prize was first instituted. Even Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants,” an expression that he borrowed.

    As for patents awarded for publicly funded work? That doesn’t quite sound right to me. But then, what do I know? Is this the Market in action? Have its tentacles reached everywhere now?

  5. Bernard Bumner says

    It is high time that patent applications underpinned by publicly funded and collaborative research are replaced by a better system to encourage and reward open innovation, particularly within academe. If industry wants to buy or conduct research then patents may be the only way of protecting that investment, but public funding should not be for the profit of organisations (in the same way that it shouldn’t fund closed-access publishing). I don’t whether public funding paid for the Broad or Berkeley research, but it surely funded some of the contributions to the underpinning science conducted around the world.

    Alas, that funding bodies consider patents to be a useful metric of performance and a strong research output, and that they are seen politically as a good indicator of the research strength of a region. I’m not sure what better system there might be, but I do know that patent monopolies are barriers to access, restrict further innovation, and don’t fairly reward the public for funding R&D.

    It is also time to scrap the Nobel prize, which has become nothing more than an unfair enrichment of already lauded and prominently placed PIs and a recruitment tool for prestige institutions. All of that at massive cost to those who lose out, are written out of the History, and to the public understanding of science.

  6. komarov says

    A suitable chief henchman would probably be a notary or lawyer.

    “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to sign here.”

  7. blf says

    I should point out the mildly deranged penguin does throw cats (with the help of a trebuchet), is know to occupy a lair, can be quite single-minded (especially when pursuing cheese or MUSHROOMS!), has been known to deploy a wide range of Devices (not all of them Dwarfish), drinks (but prefers tossed rather than shaken), has caused many LOUD noises and explosions (some of which really smelled!), and disavows responsibility for some of the sinkings of Atlantis.

    Then she has breakfast.

  8. petesh says

    My [least] favorite part of Lander’s piece was his reference to Charpentier as one of those “near the very start of their scientific careers.” She was born in 1968. Conversely, Doudna is introduced as “a world-renowned structural biologist and RNA expert at the University of California, Berkeley.” She was born in 1964. So basically, he pats one on the head (or elsewhere), and hints that the other poaches credit from her juniors. Fortunately, they both slapped back, hard.

  9. Rich Woods says

    and now I’m wondering what actor will play the Bond villain

    Alan Rickman. Has to happen.


    @dick #5:

    Even Newton “stood on the shoulders of giants,” an expression that he borrowed.

    Newton used it to denigrate his rival, Robert Hooke, who was short and ‘crook-backed’.

  10. Anisopteran says

    If we want innovations (even from publicly-funded work) to be turned into something that can benefit everyone – for example, a new drug or a diagnostic tool – then (in a capitalist society, which is, after all, what most of us live in) – you need someone to invest in it – and the protection of a patent is needed to make an investment worthwhile.

    And the point of a patent is that in exchange, you have to tell everyone how it works!

    That’s not to say that IP protection around the world couldn’t work better than it does…

  11. khms says

    #12 Anisopteran

    So the only worthwile investment is into a monopoly?

    I don’t think so. In fact, whoever invented anti-monopoly legislation certainly didn’t think so, either.

    On the other hand, patents are what makes R&D a gamble (if someone else is slightly faster, you can’t use your own invention, which certainly isn’t a motive to invest in R&D), and it’s a wonderful barrier to entry once you hold a few dozen critical for a certain sector of industry.

    Not to mention there are areas where you don’t need to invest lots of money to make something useful from patented stuff, such as IT.

    Seems to me patents, like Nobel prizes, have long passed the point where they could be considered a net benefit.

  12. Bernard Bumner says

    @ Anisopteran #12,

    I work at the academic-industrial interface in the field of Industrial Biotechnology, mediating research between the leading academic institutes across Europe and the biggest pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing companies in the world. And I pretty much work with any company of note you could name, at some level or another. Patents are very much a double-edged sword, and can be equally chilling as inspiring invention.

    Patents certainly inhibit further innovation where academics and industry don’t have freedom to operate. The ability to demonstrate freedom to operate is an element of many funding competitions when the research proposal is at a higher technology readiness level. That means that even academics may be prevented from further working in an area where strong IP protection already exists. Industry generally avoids competing IP unless the patent is due to expire soon.

    I say again, receiving public funding should be sufficient enrichment in and of itself, and the research should be considered strictly precompetitive. If patents are deemed to be a necessary feature, then they perhaps need to be reformed so that a patent is only granted where funding is declared and the public also receives royalties from inventions.

    As it is, a vast majority of patents are never effectively exploited, so their only effect is to prevent competing development of technologies which, when developed by academia, were probaby not developed with patent in mind. That is a big problem.

    My boss is a leader in his field, and his approach is generally not to patent, precisely because he sees research as his job, not money-making. He recognised some time ago that uptake of the technologies we develop will be accelerted if we disseminate the results to a diverse range of industries and organisations. Many of those organisations are directly competing with each other, and yet we can bring them to the same table to discuss research relatively openly and to strongly collaborate on precompetitive projects. They can then go away and develop their own IP at their own cost.

    It might be argued that the public loses out because the University doesn’t profit from our research. However, I would argue that the benefit is much greater by lowering the barriers to uptake of the technologies by a diverse range of companies, and also because we receive much more direct industrial funding of studentships.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    “Interest in CRISPR spiked in 2012 when a paper from colleagues of mine at Berkeley and their collaborators in Europe described a simple way to repurpose components of the CRISPR system”

    Europe in this context means “Umeå”. So I assume U meå has followed the example of Rome of becoming both a city and a country (a continent?).

    BTW, I want genes for surviving sub-zero hibernation, like those amphibians and tardigrades.

  14. Anisopteran says

    Thanks khms #13 and Bernard #14 for your nuanced and thoughtful responses. I guess the point I was trying to make is that it’s too simple to say that patents are always bad – even on publicly funded work. Equally true, as #14 points out, it would be simplistic to say that they are always beneficial. There are some forms of publicly funded work that have to be developed commercially to have public benefit, and sometimes people are only willing to invest with some form of IP protection. It does depend on the nature of the innovation and the field it’s being applied to. And it’s my very direct experience that some funders (at least in the UK) demand that researchers take steps to protect any new IP they develop. Whether this is actually wise is a much more complex discussion…