Over the last 2 decades, scientists have witnessed the gradual erosion of a cornerstone of scientific progress: the free exchange of research materials like reagents, cells, and animals. The invasion of commerce in biomedical research has meant that lawyers may haggle for months about conditions before a single test tube is shipped. But last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) proposed a new code of conduct aimed at curbing this legal wrangling and accelerating scientific discovery. The document, drawn up by NIH's office of technology transfer, has been put on the Web  for comment.
The initiative comes at a time when contracts governing the exchange of research tools, so-called Materials Transfer Agreements (MTAs), are causing increasing frustration (Science, 10 October 1997, p. 212). Scientists often resent the slowdown caused by the legalese in these documents.
NIH's housecleaning is targeted specifically on MTAs that might delay or prevent publication of research, or that seek so-called "reach-through rights"--a property claim on discoveries that arise from the use of shared materials. "Researchers are desperate to have the latest materials and often are willing to sign anything, promise anything," says Louis Berneman, director of the technology transfer office at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. But NIH does not want grantees to give away tax-funded work just because one of the reagents was developed by an outside company.
In NIH's proposal, researchers requesting materials are expected not to sign anything that unduly limits academic freedom or publication, nor are they allowed to assent to withholding data or grant reach-through rights. Conversely, the fruits of NIH-funded research should be widely distributed, preferably on a nonexclusive basis. "We're very serious about enforcing these guidelines," says Maria Freire, director of the agency's office of technology transfer.
"This is a very good example of the government exercising some kind of moral authority in balancing contrasting needs," says Terry Feuerborn, director of the University of California's office of technology transfer. But others disagree. Thomas Mays, a patent attorney at the Morrison and Foerster law firm in Washington, D.C., says universities and researchers should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to go along with restrictive contracts. Mays says the agency is going a little too far in its zeal to smoothen transactions: "NIH appears to be attempting to go back decades, to a point where materials were freely available," he says.