One Small Step for Incentivizing Commercial Research in Space

Commercial entities are skeptical about funding research on the International Space Station because of questions surrounding the patent and data rights from that research. NASA has made multiple policy changes the past few years in order to incentivize commercial research in space.

From advancements in pharmaceuticals to robotic arms, research on the International Space Station (ISS) has contributed to progress in a wide variety of fields. The microgravity on the ISS allows for research opportunities that are not available anywhere on Earth. While there is evidence of many advancements only made possible because of the unique research environment provided in microgravity, commercial entities are skeptical of funding their own research aboard the ISS. Questions remain around the ownership of patents and data that may result from research done in space. In the past few years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have made multiple policy changes to further incentivize commercial research within the United States national laboratory aboard the ISS.

In 2005 the ISS was designated a U.S. National Laboratory by Congress, giving research access to commercial, academic, and government institutions. NASA made an agreement in 2011 with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) that made CASIS the manager of the national laboratory aboard the ISS. Part of this agreement requires CASIS and its research partners to transfer any patent licenses and data rights that result from any experiment conducted aboard the ISS to the United States government. CASIS has indicated that this provision has deterred commercial research aboard the ISS, with commercial entities such as pharmaceutical companies stating that they will not design experiments for the ISS as long as they must transfer rights in the data to the government. NASA has been making policy changes since 2012 in an effort to incentivize commercial research aboard the ISS, but according to CASIS, many commercial entities still have concerns about their intellectual property rights derived from research aboard the ISS.

To further incentivize commercial research aboard the ISS, NASA recently made an announcement that it is “providing a class patent waiver to third-party users who privately fund their research so that these users can automatically gain title to their inventions made aboard the space station.” A class patent waiver is a waiver of rights in the whole class of inventions that may come from any particular research project. This means that NASA will be waiving their rights in any inventions that may come from a commercially funded research project aboard the ISS. Notably absent from the announcement is any mention of the rights of the research data that would go towards creating those inventions. While there has been no more news about how this will work in practice, it is one small step forward for incentivizing commercial research in space and the many advancements it can bring.

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