By Kyla Fisher, M.A. Economics, Queen’s University
Innovation is one of the primary drivers of economic growth and improvements in living standards. It often produces larger social benefits than private benefits, leading firms to under-invest in R&D compared to the socially-optimal level. One of the ways that the government works to overcome this gap is through offering intellectual property (IP) protections, giving firms a temporary monopoly on commercializing their ideas. In addition, many governments allocate significant funds directly towards research through public research institutions or universities. However, it is difficult to determine the impact of these public efforts to stimulate innovation as we are unable to know the counterfactual. This article reviews the findings from an innovative study by Heidi Williams (2013) on the use of IP during the sequencing of the human genome. The study exploits the discrete nature of gene sequencing and the fact that it was researched both publicly and privately to evaluate the impact of IP on innovation outcomes. Despite the importance of IP policy for technological innovation there are relatively few empirical studies in this area. For this reason, Williams’ study generated quite a bit of interest at the time of publication and has been cited in multiple U.S. Supreme Court briefings.