What is in “the public interest”?

2014-03-18T15:20:45+00:00 January 23rd, 2014|Science and Society|

By Jessey Wright

 The notion of public interest, while murky and hard to define, can be a useful tool for isolating the core issues at play in a policy debate.  Appreciating what is meant by ‘the public interest’ requires identifying which ‘public’ is being served.

 The clearest approach is to identify what they mean by ‘the public’. Yesterday’s blog post illustrated some of the challenges associated with identifying what “the public” means. It is important is to realize that “the public” rarely means ‘the whole public’ or ‘every citizen (of this country)’. Also, it is clear that the meaning of “the public’ and what is in ‘the publics interest’ are interwoven. What is in the public’s interest depends on who is included in ‘the public’. One way to identify the relevant public when considering a policy reported to be in “the public’s interest” is to ask yourself “who does this policy benefit?” Whichever group of people benefited by the policy is the relevant public whose interests are being served [for more, see John Dewey’s book The Public and its Problems].

 It is not always easy to identify who would benefit from a particular policy, and so this approach to defining ‘the public interest’ is not always available. Another approach is to identify which group or activity is blocked, impeded or harmed by the proposed policy. Then, you will have identified the opponent to the public interest that is being subdued by the proposed policy. Whatever or whomever is threatened by those negatively impacted by the policy, is the “public” whose interests are being served.

 To illustrate this, consider the debates throughout the 20th-century regarding university patents. Grischa Metlay, in Reconsidering Renormalization: Stability and Change in 20th-Century Views on University Patents, examined how university patents were originally developed at the turn of the 20th century and how this development, and the socio-economic context of these debates, forms the foundation of the modern research university. In particular, the debates surrounding the implementation of the first university patents in the early 1910-39 is contrasted with the Bayh-Dole debates of 1976-80.

 Metlay observes that, while the language and content of the debates during these two periods are largely the same, the resultant policies and actions differed. In the pre-World War II period, when university patents were first debated, their role was to protect consumers in lieu of federal regulations on private enterprise. Patents would provide more value and supply while decreasing costs, by preventing the market from being flooded by low-quality imitation products. They were a measure to protect the public from corporate misuse of university research [590]. During Bayh-Dole, university patents were to be viewed as a way to bring the fruits of public-funded research to industry more rapidly and effectively [590].

 While the content of the debate didn’t change, the meaning of the central terms did. And in particular, what was meant by `public interest’ shifted as the Cold War settled in. To identify this shift, Metlay considers what in the debates was contrasted with the public interest; what was the scourge on society that needed opposition? By answering this question, we will identify ‘the public’ whose interests are being protected by the proposed policies; they are those who are threatened by the scourge the policy is intended to combat.

 What was the opponent of the public prior to the cold war? “In the pre-World War II period, the scourge was unregulated private enterprise.” [590, emphasis added]. Clearly, then, the relevant use of university patents and their surrounding policies is to protect the public from the damages unregulated enterprise can cause. Through university patents the patent-holding institution could enforce quality control and price control. The public being served is the consumer of the products developed through the use of university research.

 During the Bayh-Dole debates, the opponent of the public interest was “the cumbersome federal bureaucracy” [590, emphasis added]. The university patent could thwart this opponent by accelerating the process by which the fruits of research were converted into consumer goods and made available on the market. Licensing agreements and close contact between the patent-holding university and the licensing corporation could achieve this more readily than the current, cumbersome federal bureaucracy, which only hindered technological and commercial progress. The public being served is the industry and commercial enterprises that would financially benefit from this new arrangement.

 Making sense out of what is meant by ‘public interest’ when the concept is used in policy debates can make clearer the stakes of the debate.