Cultivating Innovation: Agroecology, Plant Breeding and the Challenge to Intellectual Property Law

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Philosophy


How has the ownership of ideas - 'intellectual property', or IP, as it is now called - shaped the development of science, technology and society? A new, synthetic framework for investigating this vital question was one of the major outcomes of the Leeds-Bristol AHRC 'Owning and Disowning Invention' project. As one of the co-Is on that project, Prof. G. Radick took the lead in developing the framework and also in extending it to reinterpreting historical shifts in the science and practice of plant breeding in Britain in the decades around 1900. It is the aim of this Follow-on Funding project to bring the insights of this research to audiences well placed to benefit from them, in a form that maximises both uptake and utility.

At the core of the synthetic framework is a new distinction between IP claims narrowly construed - the familiar legal instruments of patents, trademarks and so on ('IP-narrow') - and other, broader sorts of ownership claims ('IP-broad'), notably claims to have discovered something first ('priority claims') and, on behalf of a discipline, claims that its theoretical principles explain the success of useful techniques and technologies ('productivity claims'). This recognition of intersecting, interacting narrow and broad concepts of IP - and also the potentially destructive tensions they engender - serves to illuminate a range of issues, from the troublesome classification of scientific work as 'pure' or 'applied' to the nature of the public authority of the sciences in our culture. In his own use of this expanded conception of IP in the technosciences, Radick has suggested that, far more than historians have suspected hitherto, the new Mendelian genetics of the early twentieth century depended on the carefully controlled management of the distribution and reputation of putatively Mendelian, and putatively excellent (but in fact highly problematic) plant varieties.

This Follow-on project will work in collaboration with the Newbury-based Organic Research Centre (ORC) to create public-facing resources on four specific themes:
i) changes in the biological understanding of heredity have coevolved with changes in the economic conditions and marketing of plant varieties. The Owning and Disowning Invention project has opened a rich body of evidence for the further exploration of these problems, which can be used throughout the collaboration with the ORC.
ii) the patent regimes under which scientists in different countries operate is related to the likelihood of their producing successful innovations. Currently, the IP system operating across Europe and North America favours some plant breeding methods over others. Attention to the long-run history of IP and plant breeding can stimulate critical thinking about this status quo.
iii) typically, in the context of plant breeding in particular and the biosciences in general, IP has been understood as only relating to patents. The differences between mainstream plant breeding methods deriving from the prestige science of molecular biology and alternative methods not so derived presents an ideal setting for analysis making use of the expanded conception of IP in order, again, to promote critical thinking and more creative discussion.
iv) the history of plant breeding has been marked by a persistent shift in the location of breeding work, away from the farm and towards the trialling fields of private companies. Understanding these developments requires a focus upon our changed understanding of what plant breeding innovation looks like, and how it might be fostered and protected.

This proposed project is modelled closely on a recently funded, Leeds-based AHRC Follow-on Funding project, 'Innovating in Combat: Telecommunications and Intellectual Property in the First World War', partnered with the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford, and led by Prof. G. Gooday, who was PI on the Owning and Disowning Invention project, and Co-I here.

Planned Impact

There are seven principal beneficiaries:

State-funded pre-breeding centres
Organisations funded by government, often with a non-profit status, must nevertheless work within an industry in which the protection of organic innovation is the norm. Indeed, for some, the implementing of intellectual property (IP) legislation is a central component of their research output. The conference and materials produced by this Follow-on Funding project will benefit them by providing a new perspective on the role of IP in their scientific research, offering insights into the long history of state-funded biological research and the ownership of invention.

Private plant breeders
Of all the groups concerned with IP in the biosciences, this group is the most beleaguered. For some time, its members have relied upon a legislative and legalistic defence of their market activities. They will benefit from the opportunity to engage with a wider academic community. The materials made available on the conference website will provide a sound and accessible introduction to the modes of argument and reasoning that exist across the disciplines discussed above, enabling improved articulation of better formulated policies to an increasingly sceptical public.

Undergraduate and incoming A-level students
They will benefit from being able to approach the topics they study from a broader perspective, rather than seeing history and biology as two unrelated ventures. At the same time, they will be given a valuable opportunity to tackle the issues of global poverty and population growth which are set to become particularly acute over the next fifty years.

Archives relating to the history of IP in the biosciences
Some of the most important history-of-biology archives in the UK have yet to have their holdings investigated from the expanded IP perspective. Scientific centres such as the John Innes Centre, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, and Rothamsted Research, alongside significant university historical collections (particularly those of the longest-standing agricultural science departments, in the University of Cambridge, the University of Leeds and the University of Reading) can benefit from their archives attracting greater attention and being more fully exploited.

Policy makers concerned with innovation and IP
Organisations such as the Intellectual Property Office and other governmental agencies will benefit from being able to construct their current and future policies from a more historically and sociologically informed perspective. As yet there have been few direct efforts to establish pathways to impact between IP researchers and policy makers. This project, concentrating on both the history of innovation and of IP, will create materials of value to large sections of the public policy community.

Agroecological crop breeding advocates
At present these groups have tended to base their arguments on grounds to do with the ethical implications of contemporary industrial practices. This conference will offer them new ways in which to make their case, ones focused much more on the historical development of the changes that have generated anxiety. Emphasising the diversity present in populations over which it is difficult to exercise IP rights can offer a new means of helping these advocates, and the growers they represent, meet their goals.

International agricultural development agencies and NGOs
The granting of IP rights over organic innovations has been one of the most controversial aspects of much of the work conducted in the developing world. Organisations dedicated to the expansion of the agricultural industries in this country will benefit from access to some of the most recent academic research results concerned with the development and consequences of this legislation. Exposing and discussing the problems posed by IP should help improve the effectiveness of these organisations activities.


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Description Through this follow-on funding project we developed new ways in which to communicate the results of scholarly work in the area of intellectual property to non-specialist audiences, including scientists, teachers, school children and undergraduate students. These took the form of: teaching materials (discussion prompts and a pamphlet); freely available online lectures; and a podcast interview. We found that the term 'intellectual property' (embedded in Prof. Radick's 'IP-Narrow, IP-Broad' methodological approach, which the present project was funded to follow-on) has a very distinct shape in the minds of most people, one that is inextricably linked to IP Rights (patents, trademarks etc.). This holds true even in those for whom analysing and being skeptical about 'that thing called IP' is part of their professional expertise. This strong connection between IP and IPRs was a considerable challenge for our methodological approach (which was designed to move beyond that very link), and therefore a challenge for a project designed to bring this broadening to a wider audience. We eventually found however that talking about 'ownership' in the first instance, stopped people from later misunderstanding us when we wanted to talk about different forms of IP. You will notice that we called our pamphlet "Intellectual ownership" and the discussion prompts "Understanding Intellectual Ownership". In doing so we obviously sacrifice the more readily recognised notion of 'intellectual property', but it was precisely that ease of recognition that we sought to challenge, and which was causing the project difficulties. IP is nevertheless the central feature of these materials, and is included as a key word term in the TES database.
Exploitation Route The area of IP pedagogy is one that needs considerable attention. The majority of resources for students regarding IP are about copyright, which is believed to be more immediately relevant to them in the digital age. This is short sighted. Students are increasingly being encouraged to think of 'innovations' while still in compulsory education, and begin thinking about research and development when they pursue undergraduate study in the sciences. This project has pioneered the creation of pedagogical materials in IP that address issues well outside of copyright, and encourage critical thinking regarding IP. Our starting point could very easily form the basis of a more extensive national project and educational campaign, including the creation of A-level special projects.

Within the history of science the IP-Narrow/IP-Broad framework is designed to be generative of novel questions in any given area of research, broadening our conception of intellectual property to encompass a far wider variety of historical phenomena. The finding that 'ownership' is perhaps a more useful umbrella, over and above 'IP', has been of considerable importance, and could be used by future researchers who wish to move beyond mere IPRs in the history of IP in science and technology.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Creative Economy,Education,Healthcare,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description These results are already being used elsewhere. The project researcher, Dr Dominic Berry, has used the IP-Narrow/IP-Broad perspective for teaching MSc students at the University of Edinburgh. As a result, he has been approached to pursue a research grant proposal under the banner of 'Ways of Owning'. Dr Courtney Fullilove, who presented work at the Cultivating Innovation conference, has reported use of the 'Save or Split' game for discussion of the aims of IP pedagogy with postgraduate students. Dr Bruce Pearce, consultant investigator on the project, has made direct use of the IP-Narrow and IP-Broad terminology in public presentations, and also of course at the Cultivating Innovation conference itself. The work of the project also earned Prof Radick an invitation to participate in an All Party Parliamentary Group meeting on the subject of IP in agriculture. More recently, Prof Radick was PI on a GCRF AHRC research project, "International Development and Intellectual Property: The Impact of Seed Exchange and Replacement on Innovation among Small-Scale Farmers in India" (2016-17), in collaboration with Dr Mrinalini Kochupillai (MPI, Munich), who was one of the speakers at the Cultivating Innovation project conference in Norwich. A separate report on this successor project will be filed; but it's appropriate to note here that without the Cultivating Innovation project conference the ID and IP project would never have come about, since the research design and the research partner necessary for the India-based project were brought to the collaboration by Dr Kochupillai, whose work -- in a different discipline (legal studies) -- Prof. Radick would never have come across otherwise (and vice versa).
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/PO04059/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2016 
End 02/2020
Description Translating Cultures/Care for the Future Innovation Awards on International Development
Amount £80,202 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/P007775/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 09/2017
Description Collaborative talk (Angers) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project postdoc, Dominic Berry, and the project's functional co-I, Bruce Pearce from the Organice Research Council, co-wrote and co-presented an invited paper together at a conference on History and Plant Sciences: Interdisciplinary Approaches, held in Angers in late 2014
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description IP in agriculture conference (Norwich) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact There were 33 registered attendees for this international conference, entitled "Cultivating Innovation: How (and How Not) to Think about Intellectual Property in Agricultural and Plant Science", held at the John Innes Centre, 14 April 2015. The talks were from a very unusual mix of people included practitioners, lawyers, and historians of science. The event helped to cement the relationship between Radick and the John Innes Centre, which is now a partner on a major European grant application. Videos of all 9 papers given at the conferences are available on Youtube at
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Podcast interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The project postdoc, Dominic Berry, was interviewed about genes, agriculture and IP for an episode on "Patenting and preserving genes" in Kat Arney's well-known Naked Scientists podcast series, broadcast on 13 April 2015
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Teaching materials on IP and science 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Three types of teaching materials on IP, science and technology have been made freely available at the project website and, for (1) and (2) below, also the Times Educational Supplement resources website:

(1) Discussion prompts on Understanding Intellectual Ownership; suitable for 17+
(2) A pamphlet entitled Intellectual Ownership: Understanding the Work of Ideas; suitable for 17+
(3) A board game, Save or Split, about cooperation and competition, suitable for 10-13 year-olds

On release of the teaching materials, they received over 600 views plus some very positive attenton from within the field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Twitter account (IPNarrowIPBroad) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This very successful Twitter account, run by the project postdoc Dominic Berry, helped raise awareness not just of the project and its output but, by its name, Radick's distinctvie research on IP, science and technology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015