building the clearinghouse for research tools
(For more information on this project, see the project details here.)
The Biological Materials Transfer Agreement Project (MTA) develops and deploys standard, modular contracts to lower the costs of transferring physical biological materials such as DNA, cell lines, model animals, antibodies and more. The MTA project covers transfers among non-profit institutions as well as between non-profit and for profit institutions. It integrates existing standard agreements into a Web-deployed suite alongside new Science Commons contracts, and allows for the emergence of a transaction system along the lines of Amazon or eBay by using the licensing as a discovery mechanism for materials.
Our MTA project has a simple goal: to make the scientist’s work easier and to allow him/her to start their work sooner. That means we need to help scientists better locate and order the materials needed, rather than letting months pass and thus jeopardizing research plans. The cumulative impact of such an innovation over time is enormous – systematically accelerated discovery, eventually leading to earlier cures and useful applications from science. It would not be a stretch to imagine that the course of many lives – especially those waiting for cures – would be very different in an alternative universe when ordering these kinds of research materials is fast and effortless.
The reason behind all of this …
The licensing problem that exists in the transfer of biological materials was brought to our attention as a result of a multidisciplinary workshop we held in the fall of 2005. While patents are popularly identified as impediments to scientific progress, our interview-based research yielded remarkable consensus that the impact of slow – or non-existent- materials transfer among entities was a far more significant slowdown of the basic research cycle.
Materials represent tacit knowledge – generating a bacterial vector or an antibody can take months of years, and replicating the work is time consuming and difficult. Gaining access to those materials is subject to secrecy, competition, lack of resources to manufacture materials, lack of time, legal transaction costs and delays, and more.
We thus decided to take the goal of constructing not only a contract suite to address the legal transaction costs but the entire cycle. In order to explore this further, we assembled a working group consisting of funders of neurodegenerative diseases, technology transfer officials, materials repositories, legal theorists, and other experts. This mix ensured that the contract would meet at least the initial requirements of a transaction system in which funders encouraged the use of the agreements, scientists deposited the materials in repositories for fulfillment and technology managers were comfortable binding themselves to the agreements.
(We have also compiled empirical data and other findings about materials transfer problems. To see that information, click here.)
Initial work …
With the help of our working group, we drafted a set of contracts and revised them, then made early presentations of the work through our social network to other technology transfer offices, organizations working to optimize university-industry innovation, efforts to write software for MTA workflows, materials repositories, and more, to refine our initial release. This work led us to not only build our own agreements to address university-industry transfer but to incorporate two key existing university-university agreements – the Uniform Biological Materials Transfer Agreement (UBMTA) and the Simple Letter Agreement (SLA).
We then began work on porting those contracts into the Creative Commons methodology. The contract launch with a Web enabled, question-driven interface, human readable deeds, and metadata, and will work with the Creative Commons software infrastructure for search and relationship tracking.
This metadata driven approach is based on the success of the Creative Commons licensing integration into search engines further allows for the integration of materials licensing directly into th research literature and databases so that scientists can “one-click” inline as they perform typical research. And like Creative Commons licensing, we can leverage the ccHost platform to track materials propagation and reuse, creating new data points for the impact of scientific research that are more dimensional than simple citation indices, tying specific materials to related peer-reviewed articles and data sets.
Where we are now …
Our efforts in building a system to meet these needs builds upon the best of what is already available (for example, the standard UBMTA). We have added more options to address unmet needs, done so in ways that will lead to greater standardization, not more burdens upon technology transfer offices and lawyers who are already stretched too thin to cope with the volume of work created by the current way of doing things. We have made the agreements easier to understand and identify for the (non-lawyer) scientist. Continuing to work closely with universities, institutions and the private sector to ensure that scientists are fully empowered to exchange and re-use materials with less paperwork.
The iBridge Network will host the deployment of our beta test of the software infrastructure, which includes the UBMTA, Simple Letter Agreement, and a new suite of flexible, modular MTAs that will be offered for the first time by Science Commons. We believe that this suite offers enough choices to standardize the vast majority of scenarios involving materials transfer.
Our beta test, with the iBridge Network, will allow participating institutions to lower the friction of sharing materials among them. We will integrate into the iBridge network a portal through which providers of materials can use a simple interface, with drop-down menus and standard questions, to choose an MTA. By answering simple questions, they will be offered a choice between one of the standard academic MTAs or the ability to customize an MTA based on the Science Commons MTA suite. As the end of this process, they will receive a copy of an MTA (the actual legal text) generated from their choices and responses, accompanied by metadata that can be used to tag the offering on the Web in ways that make it easy to search and categorize by search engines, and a “human-readable deed” whose purpose is to “brand” each distinct MTA in ways that make their relevant attributes immediately obvious to human beings.
We have taken full advantage of Web technology to build a technology infrastructure that can support powerful searching and tracking of available materials. By putting all of these pieces together, we envision our materials transfer system to be one day as efficient as eBay for auctions, or Amazon.com for ordering products, or Google for searching for content. Why have these examples of success in e-Commerce not been fully exploited for solving the problem of getting materials? Why are we still exchanging materials more or less the same way we have been before the Web was born?
By making materials easy to find on the Web and easy to acquire via standard contracts, any such system runs the risk of creating burdens on laboratories and scientists. Manufacturing and distributing materials is not the top priority for most labs.
That’s why, from the beginning, we involved partners like Addgene – organizations that serve the scientific community by providing the distribution and manufacturing as a service. The entire cycle of materials transfer requires not just contracts and technology, but also the presence of service organizations that can ship and track the materials under standard contract.
Part of the answer is that no one can do this alone. It takes many acting together to make this vision work. It will take policy chances and new ways of doing things. Our MTA project is one piece of that vision.
How SC-Licensing Works
SC-Licensing is guided by a group of expert advisers from both the sciences and the law and by the scientific community. We build “requirements” through public listserv discussion and the Licensing Working Group – in much the same spirit as the functional specifications for software are developed.
For more information on the issues driving Science Commons’ work in this area, see our Biological Materials Transfer Project Background Briefing. You can also read our empirical data and findings about materials transfer problems.