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Last month's World Summit on the Information Society endorsed the use of electronic media to support scientific developments and their applications to social needs. The challenge now is how to achieve this as effectively as possible.

Any scientist attending the opening of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Geneva would have been heartened to hear Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, close his introductory remarks with a quotation from the nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Particularly since the meeting was held not far from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), at which the World Wide Web was born.

Writing about half a century ago, Oppenheimer spoke of the need to ensure that an "ever changing, ever more specialised and expert technological world" nevertheless remained "a world of human community". One of the factors that, he said, were essential in achieving this was unrestricted access to knowledge. Another was the "unplanned and uninhibited association" of individuals.

The sense of idealism conveyed in Oppenheimer's remarks was widely in evidence in Geneva. Many of the high-minded statements both delivered in the conference hall and reflected in the two documents endorsed by the meeting — a Declaration of Principles and a Plan of Action — expressed a vision of what might be achieved, as much as what is likely to be (see Information summit endorses key role of 'e-science).

Few demurred, for example, when the meeting agreed to commit itself to the ambitious target of ensuring that 50 per cent of the world's population have access to the Internet by 2015. Nor was much space given to demands from developing countries for significant action on the more political issues that underpin — and are likely to guarantee the continued existence of — the digital divide. These are the global imbalance of both resources and power that characterise the information economy, just as they characterise the global economy more generally.

Future challenges

If the rhetoric had a function, however, it was to remind the participants at the meeting not only of the potential offered by information and communications technologies (ICTs) — particularly in developing countries — but also the size of the challenges that lie ahead, and the obstacles that need to be overcome.

The second half of the two-part meeting, which will be held in Tunis in 2005, will provide an opportunity to assess the success achieved over the next two years in realising the potential of ICTs. For the scientific community, this means taking stock of progress in five key areas that had previously been identified in a joint statement by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the Third World Academy of Sciences, the International Center for Theoretical Physics, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and CERN. These are now endorsed in the plan of action.

In one sense, this will require little more than reinforcing current trends. There is already a broad consensus, for example, that one of the most effective ways of building the capacity of universities and research laboratories in developing countries to participate in the global research community is by providing high-speed Internet links. It is useful to have the WSIS's endorsement of this process — as it is to have a political focus for efforts to collect, disseminate and preserve 'scientific digital data'.

The more difficult areas to address will be those where commercial interests intersect, and occasionally collide, with open dissemination. Indeed, the issues on which WSIS itself stumbled — such as whether to loosen intellectual property regimes, for example on communications software — are similar in form to many of those that are currently under hot discussion within the scientific community, whether over the scope of intellectual property rights, or over the future of scientific communication in the electronic era.

Access to scientific information

For example, questions about access to scientific information — in particular, who should control this access, on what terms, and with whose interests in mind — lie at the heart of the controversy currently engulfing parts of the scientific community over proposals for open access to all scientific publications.

Everyone, in his or her own way, is in favour of the widest possible access to scientific information; that is not in dispute. What is, however, is the terms and conditions on which such access should be permitted. In particular, should this be a market model, in which the cost of access is determined by the ability and willingness of individuals to pay? One based entirely on need, where the costs are covered by the provider (which, in the case of scientists, means the original funder of the research in question)? Or a combination of the two?

The ideal model, which Oppenheimer would no doubt have endorsed, is that all scientific information should be made freely available to everyone. Many statements to this effect were heard in Geneva, not least from the current leaders of the international physics community, Luciano Maiani, the current director of CERN. Addressing the final session of the summit, he presented as a key conclusion emerging from a meeting held at his own laboratory earlier in the week that "fundamental scientific information must be made freely available".

Others were more pragmatic. Speaking on behalf of ICSU, for example, the organisation's current president, Jane Lubchenco, spoke similarly of the need to ensure universal access to scientific data for research and education purposes. But at the same time, she added that this needed to be balanced with treating such data as "a commodity for short-term economic return" (see ICSU defends 'universal and equitable' access to data).

Political pressures

Lubchenco's caution is less a reflection of her personal views (expressed more forcefully in an editorial in Science earlier this year) than a recognition of the economic and political pressures that remain present, even in discussions about securing access to scientific data. For one of the key characteristics of the information society, and the knowledge economy that underpins it, is precisely this 'commodification' of scientific data — or, to put it more crudely, the use of science for private commercial ends.

The imbalances that this creates, and in particular its contribution to ensuring the continued existence of the digital divide, will not be changed by UN committees or resolutions. Rather it needs continuous pressure from all those concerned over the problems that it creates, and in developing just and equitable solutions to them. And this in turn requires empowering such individuals with the knowledge and skills that designing and implementing these solutions will require.

Oppenheimer sacrificed his career when, as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (and formerly director of the Manhattan Project, responsible for producing the world's first atomic bomb), he acknowledged that his concerns about world peace were not restricted to the laboratory, but had a political dimension to them. In that sense, at least, little has changed in the past 50 years.

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