Prometheus » Technology Policy Fri, 02 Jul 2010 16:53:16 +0000 en hourly 1 Business Methods Patents to Receive Scrutiny Tue, 16 Jun 2009 20:12:09 +0000 admin The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case regarding the validity of business method patents (H/T Wall Street Journal).  Business method patents cover ways of doing business, and became a larger share of patents as electronic commerce and other computerized activities became widespread.  An example of such a patent is Amazon’s 1-Click method for expediting online orders.

As the petition for a writ of certiorari reads, the issue in this case is:

Whether the Federal Circuit erred by holding that a “process” must be tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or transform a particular article into a different state or thing (“machine-or-transformation” test), to be eligible for patenting under 35 U.S.C. § 101, despite this Court’s precedent declining to limit the broad statutory grant of patent eligibility for “any” new and useful process beyond excluding patents for “laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas.”

In other words, should process patents be drawn more narrowly to apply only to those processes that are tied to a machine or make a transformation of some physical item.  The underlying case at the Federal Circuit answered yes to this question, contrary to recent practice and precedent.  If that perspective is upheld, some claim the removal of patent protection for these processes would chill innovation.  Others would counter that the costs of litigation that arise from inadvertent infringement are an impediment as well.

If the Court rules against a broadly interpreted patent, it is possible that patents in other areas that some consider too broad (genes, plant varieties, etc.), will be revisited as well.

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E-Books and Textbooks – Not Quite there Yet Thu, 11 Jun 2009 17:49:40 +0000 admin The Chronicle of Higher Education provides this vignette of Northwest Missouri State University and it’s efforts to go all-electronic with its textbooks.  While the notion of providing or requiring incoming students to pick up an electronic book reader and load it with textbooks has its appeal (lower cost to the student over the course of their education, easier updates, less paper used), the technology isn’t quite ready for textbook reading.  The Chronicle piece describes several important points here (power demands over a long school day, funtionality within the text, lack of color display), but the main conclusion that things aren’t as easy with e-books as initially thought comes down to differences in reading.

Many people read differently on the Web, or in newspapers, compared to a novel, and the same is true for textbooks.  There’s a fair amount of skimming going on, flipping to the table of contents and/or index, and other fast motion that current e-book readers aren’t well-suited for (or online reading through something like Google Book Search).  E-book readers don’t appear to be able to handle sidebars, text boxes, and other graphic design elements common to many textbooks.  To force textbook migration to these devices right now would seem like taking a step back to take a step forward.

When will we know if e-books have acheived the maturity to function well in the textbook area?  Let me suggest if you take the same kind of survey that was done of the NW Missouri State students and the precentage who study more because of the e-books dwarfs the percentage who study less for that reason, then more widespread adoption makes sense.  A survey in March indicated 40 percent of students studied less due to the e-book readers, while only 17 percent studied more.

Some steps can be taken in the interim.  As the Chronicle piece notes, some students opted for a program allowing them to download and read textbooks on their laptops.  Course packets could migrate to portable document formats (though academic permission to copy digitally isn’t considered equivalent to paper copies).

That said, I think it important to note that not everything used in the classroom may be available digitally.  The lack of a digital format should not – I think – be the sole reason not to use a work in a class.  Similarly, people should not be so quick to push e-book readers for classes just because they are here.

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New FDA Leadership Outlines Their Priorities Fri, 29 May 2009 20:57:17 +0000 admin The new Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Margaret Hamburg and Joshua Sharfstein, outlined their priorities for the FDA in a recent Perspectives article in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Acknowledging the stumbles of the FDA in the last few years, they seem concerned about making sure the FDA is more of a supporter than a hindrance to action in public health and food safety.

“From our vantage point, the recent salmonella outbreak linked to contaminated peanut butter represented far more than a sanitation problem at one troubled facility. It reflected a failure of the FDA and its regulatory partners to identify risk and to establish and enforce basic preventive controls. And it exposed the failure of scores of food manufacturers to adequately monitor the safety of ingredients purchased from this facility.”

Here are some hints at their other agency priorities, which suggest a more active FDA than we have been used to:

“We intend to work closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to identify priority areas for joint action — such as the response to infectious-disease emergencies and outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and the development of safety systems to prevent lethal overdoses and drug interactions.”

“We look forward to working with the National Institutes of Health, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, academic medical centers, and research universities to accelerate the development of cures.”

“To make important new treatments available to patients, the FDA should collaborate with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [...] as well as with industry and patient and consumer groups to explore ways of shortening the time from approval to reimbursement. One emerging opportunity is the area of personalized medicine, in which the agency should work with scientific leaders on novel approaches to treating illness.”

“In the domain of food safety, a public health approach starts with the use of data to identify the riskiest parts of an enormous and complex system. The FDA should partner with the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies, states, and other authorities to establish a modern food-safety system focused on prevention of contamination. Working with Congress to modernize food-safety laws, the FDA must strive to build safeguards into every step of the production and distribution process.”

“The CDC and the FDA should also work closely to identify areas of potential progress in nutrition. A laissez-faire approach to nutritional claims can lead to more confusion than understanding. Working with industry and others, the FDA can support efforts to educate the public about nutrition and promote more healthful foods.”

“Globalization intensifies all the challenges the agency faces. With more than 200,000 companies from around the world selling food, cosmetics, or medical products in the United States, a public health framework provides the only viable way of protecting the American public. To anticipate the next import crisis like that involving contaminated heparin, the agency should assess imported products for their potential to cause significant problems.”

The whole article is worth reading, as it includes the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner’s perspective on public communication of FDA matters.

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Lawsuit Filed Over Gene Patents Sat, 16 May 2009 21:26:56 +0000 admin Picking up on a post from last month, ScienceInsider and others have reported on a lawsuit that may test the validity of gene patents.  The Public Patent Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suit against Myriad Genetics, which is the company owning the patents, and controlling the genetic tests, for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that show a predisposition to breast cancer.  Among the allegations is that the monopoly on these genes and the associated diagnostic tests prevents patients from obtaining a second opinion.  Apparently any examination of these genes requires permission from Myriad Genetics, which seems like an overreach of the traditional conception of the protection afforded patent holders.  The consequences to individuals include the inability to have other scientists assess the results of the tests and the influence of these genes on the potential for cancer.  General effects include a chill on research into these genes, and other consequences addressed by Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine Sir John Sulston.

It’s unfortunate that the validity of gene patents is going to be tested in this fashion, as I don’t expect this validity to be shaken.  Perhaps it’s a consequence of the deep pockets necessary to participate in a patent infringement case (on either side), but I think some kind of fair use or research exemption arrived at through an infringment action is a stronger legal claim than infringement of free speech.  Since the state of genetic understanding over the last several years has typically exposed more about what we don’t know that what we do know, to restrict access to genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2 appears to cause more harm than good.

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White House Finally Appoints Chief Technology Officer Mon, 20 Apr 2009 17:42:17 +0000 admin As part of his weekly internet and radio address, President Obama announced the appointment of Aneesh Chopra as his Chief Technology Officer.  This position is brand new (but often promised on the campaign), although there is a bill in Congress to establish the position on a more permanent basis.

Mr. Chopra is currently the Secretary of Technology for the State of Virginia.  The new Chief Information Offcier for the federal government, Mr. Vivek Kundra, worked in the same department earlier in his career.  The CTO position, as described in the address, would focus on promoting technological innovation in the support of government priorities.  In conjunction with the CIO, and newly appointed Chief Performance Officer, the CTO would also assist in the administration’s open government efforts, increasing the transparency and availability of data.

Aside from this being a brand new position, an interesting part of the job could be the responsibilities in the promotion of technological innovation.  This is a bit more targeted responsibility than what the Office of Science and Technology Policy has typically had with respect to technology.  There is the potential for a turf war here over technology, given an issue that would prompt interest from both parts of the Executive Office of the President.

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Open For Questions Model Spreads to States Mon, 13 Apr 2009 21:05:58 +0000 admin Washington State (or at least the Democrats in its Senate) is using an online tool similar to those used by the Obama transition and the Administration to take questions from the public.  The Evergreen State’s version of Open for Questions is focused on the state’s budget (H/T Internet Innovation Alliance), and works with Google Moderator.  If trends with these tools hold to past practice, expect some attempt to raise money through legalized marijuana to show up on the board (No, I am not making that up).

It would not surprise me if other states are at least trying similar online tools to engage with constituents.  The Washington example is the first one similar to national efforts that crossed my screen.  A useful policy question would be whether or not such efforts can comply with state public records laws.  Such concerns at the federal level have complicated the push (both now and before the Obama Administration made it a priority) to move more government information and activity online.

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Twitter Actually Good for Something Sun, 12 Apr 2009 00:17:48 +0000 admin While reviewing the Twitter streams of members of Congress typically does them no favors, there are politically oriented uses that have some traction and value.  Scientific American’s 60 Second Science Blog indicates that Twitter has joined texting (which is pretty much what Twitter based itself on) and other social networking sites as means for organizing political protest. This adds to the use of Twitter for early warning and the distractions of Twitter in the courts, among other (likely) unintended consequences of the service.

The specific example here relates to recent political protests in Moldova over parliamentary elections that some believe were fixed.  While this is reminiscent of other recent political movements in former Soviet republics and their use of technology to organize, there’s no reason to believe the use of these technologies would be limited to that part of the world.  For me the main question is whether or not the technology would remain viable long enough to become a target of oppression.  Some networking sites have a short shelf life, which might make it harder for groups to be found and caught.  It could also provide a leading indicator of unrest in societies – is the government blocking a particular service.  For instance, you can check on the various countries that have blocked YouTube at one time or another (some of these are due to intellectual property rights issues).  As you will read if you peruse the list, it can be difficult for countries to truly clamp down on internet sites, particularly those with global reach.  It doesn’t mean some nation won’t try.

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Apparently Not Everything Can Be Patented Wed, 08 Apr 2009 19:35:29 +0000 admin A recent federal appeals court ruling (H/T Science Insider) determined that DNA obtained from a known protein cannot be patented.  Contrary to my first impulse, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) had denied the patent and the petitioners appealed.  While I am hoping this slows down a trend of patenting everything under the sun, primarily as a defensive measure, reading the opinion suggests that USPTO just plain dropped the ball here.  However, this does mean that some researchers are inclined to just apply for patents, and hope that things stick.  Given the perpetual backload of the USPTO, some stuff will slip through the cracks that probably shouldn’t.

In the area of research, patenting items, whether they are gene sequences, research instruments, or life forms, is a double-edged sword.  While it makes sense to allow the limited property right of a patent to help recover some of the expense involved in developing the innovation, a patent barrier can chill research in various areas.  When looking at lab equipment, it’s unclear to me whether or not strictly enforcing the intellectual property on a new device pushes forward the leading edge of research.  Labs have plenty of associated costs as it is, and aggressive patent enforcement runs the risk of putting labs out of business.  Yes, research is expensive, but not all of the expenses are necessarily justified.

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Whig History and Science Policy Tue, 07 Apr 2009 17:50:16 +0000 admin Science Progress gave two historians a few column inches to remind us that not all science and technology narratives reflect the history of their disciplines.  Folks focused on nanotechnology will find the article of interest, but the main points are more broadly applicable than to just the really, really small.  The lessons, if you want to boil them down (which is a lousy thing to do with history, but expected in blogging) resemble some obvious statements, but statements that aren’t effectively applied and rarely considered when dealing with science and technology.  The Whig history mentioned here and in the Science Progress piece refers to historical treatments that treat current conditions as another step along a steady path of progress.

There is a history.  Nearly every person engaged with science and technology policy in the United States seems to think their field started and ended with Vannevar Bush in the late 1940s.  This ignores over 150 years of prior activity in the United States.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition and the U.S. Census are two ventures in the field that date back nearly to the founding of the republic.   The Forest Service and Geological Survey are also good pre-World War II examples of federal science and technology at work.

There were ‘losers’. Arguably Vannevar Bush is both a loser and a winner.  While his name and Science: The Endless Frontier still carry cachet in science policy circles, the plan in that document was not approved by President Truman.  He sought the advice of a different panel, chaired by John Steelman.  That report, and Steelman, are treated as footnotes by many, while the report is a good faith effort to chart the health of the national research enterprise – a valuable contribution to debates about how to support it, both then and now.

Change is usually incremental – Part of the consequence of ignoring history is to think of new developments as being more new than they actually are.  While World War II is usually acknowledged as an influence on post-war transformations of science and technology policy, the assessment stops there.  World War I (which saw the advent of the National Research Council) and the interwar period were also influential in establishing or refining some of the institutions that contributed to the post-war landscape of U.S. science policy.

So, what’s the bottom line?  Treating an initiative – or some acheivement – as an obvious outcome is to ignore history.  Science has a tendency to focus on the winners, on the successful experiments and theories.  For science policy to follow the same trend is to ignore knowledge that can be as vaulable and useful as what you can learn from the winners and success stories.

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A Different Kind of Automated Science Mon, 06 Apr 2009 02:23:34 +0000 admin In a sort-of related followup to yesterday’s post, there’s another recent item in Wired Science about how a computer program derived laws of motion in over a day without any knowledge of physics.  It’s an example of how computing capacity is reaching a point where large amounts of data can be crunched to determine underlying principles or rules.  In a reversal of traditional scientific practice, these rules would then require analysis and explanation.  While yesterday’s robot example has some significant human resource implications in terms of possibly putting bench scientists out of work, such displacement doesn’t seem to be the case here.  The influence of this development is more on the how of science than the who of science.  However, reaching consensus over why a particular phenomena follows specific rules could easily be as contentious as reaching consensus over whether specific observations prove certain rules are operative.

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