I always wondered why research findings funded by tax dollars are freely available to pharma companies to make big bucks.

It is a vicious cycle. It starts from taxpayer funding research projects that culminate in publishing papers. And It ends in pharmaceutical companies selling products/drugs designed based on same research findings. Unfortunately, the general public pays for both, and my question is, why should they?

A company, when using research findings from a publicly funded project, should pay for it.

         I was in academia not too long ago and I had very limited knowledge of how the industry works. My primary focus, apart from getting a PhD, was scientific curiosity and the urge to do something new. My research topic was 'academic' in the sense I couldn't foresee any immediate commercialization of my findings. Phrases like “few years from now…” and “once we know how to implement this…” and “once we understand how this works…” were very abundant when I explained my research applications. 

        But when I moved to the industry, I realized the potential of 'basic research' to be advanced as an 'applied research' with a few modifications. But the findings are out in the wild, anybody can use it. Neither me, nor the lab not even the funding agency (USDA in my case) would get anything out of such a commercialization. Unless we had patented it, which most of us do not, because we do not foresee such a use. I hardly knew there were companies waiting for academicians to conduct basic research so that they can use it to design products including drugs to sell it back to the taxpayer who funded those studies in the first place.

         Total research funding in US was ~400 billion dollars in 2007. The US Federal government alone funds 30% of this amount. Industrial R&D contributes to the rest of the spending, but it is focused on short-term commercialization rather than basic research. So funding on basic research almost entirely comes from government and non-profit agencies. This so called ‘basic research’ is what is leading to applied research eventually. And most of the R&D in the industry is based on/continuation of basic research. Project proposals in the industry proudly flaunt papers from big journals which were funded by public institutions like NSF or NIH. 

         Why do they get to use it for free? Well, there is nothing free in a market-led economy; somebody has to pay for everything. Unfortunately it is you and me again.

         There should be ways by which companies pay a price when they use it for commercial product development. Governments can re-invest that money in R&D that can lead to more discoveries.

         Flip side of this is, this might increase the cost of eventual product, but not by a huge extent I believe. Findings from one study will be used by more than one companies, so total cost per company would be less. May be only when they market the product, they can pay the royalty to the funding agency of all papers referred. Agreed, these are raw ideas, but thought worth putting up for discussion.

        What do you think on this? Can we think of Research funding 2.0??  Comments are welcome.

Reference on funding figures here