Patents should not be given on DNA sub-sequences which have no known practical application, according to a report on intellectual property and its impact on the academic community published yesterday.
The study, by the National Academies Policy Advisory Group, admits that one drawback would be that those who discover DNA sub-sequences or sequences will be under pressure not to present them to relevant databanks until they have investigated potential applications.
Despite this, the group argues that its caution is justified: "Patents should not be allowed on discoveries because exclusive rights might well be conferred on a range of practical applications, the scale of which has not even begun to be uncovered."
The report says a ruling is necessary even though a patent might induce more extensive work at greater speed on applications of the discovery.
NAPAG, which comprises the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy and The Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, stresses the importance to universities of the legally binding freedom to use a patented invention for experimental purposes.
This is coming under pressure in areas such as medical research and may require compulsory licensing powers's scope under the Patents Act to be widened.
Intellectual property is also becoming more important to universities because industrial exploitation of ideas from academic research is more common.
The study says that public bodies which provide grants or research facilities should share in the revenue from patented inventions with the researchers.
NAPAG adds: "In universities it should be put beyond question that academics retain ownership of copyright in their writings and other works so that they may publish them when and where they wish without control by their institutions."