Cailin O'Connor

“Radium is an element,” the chemist Marie Curie once told an interviewer. “It belongs to the people.” This was ironic since in that same interview, Curie—the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person to win it twice—explained that she didn’t have the funding to continue her work on radium. “I need a gram of radium to continue my researches,” she explained, “but I cannot buy it. Radium is too dear for me.”

Marie Curie’s research, and that of her husband, Pierre Curie, led to incredible advances in nuclear science. Despite the tremendous practical usefulness of their research—such as paving the way for radiation therapy in cancer treatment—the Curies did not patent any inventions. As a result, they never saw significant profits from their discoveries. Their story illustrates the idea, developed by the sociologist of science Robert Merton, that academic scientists are communists. At the very core of scientific knowledge production in the academy is a rule that researchers do not keep their findings secret. They share discoveries widely and freely—including to those who might someday profit off of them.

This creates a problem. While industry researchers have free access to academic work, academic scientists typically cannot use industry findings in their own research. A 2022 report estimated that United States businesses spent $485 billion on research and development, nearly three quarters of total U.S. research expenditures. But advertising firms and pharmaceutical companies don’t pay for research so they can share their findings widely.

It may seem perfectly fine for industry to keep their own research proprietary. But the problem is that science is cumulative. It builds off past work. Industry research relies heavily on discoveries from academic science, over half of which is funded by the U.S. government. The public pays for academic research, but private corporations reap many of the rewards.  

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