[GENEVA] Scientific information should be made more easily and freely available — especially to researchers and others in developing countries.
That is one of the key messages that the scientific community is sending the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which opens in Geneva, Switzerland, today (10 December).
Participants in a two-day meeting at the Geneva-based European Organisation for Nuclear Physics (CERN), which ended yesterday, also underlined the need to increase the ability of individuals across the globe to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) effectively.
Summing up the conclusions of the conference, held to underline the central role of science in both creating and sustaining the information society, Luciano Maiani, director-general of CERN, said that there was "clear support" for the notion that "fundamental scientific information be made freely available".
As the head of an intergovernmental organisation, Maiani will have the opportunity to make a formal address to the heads of state and other representatives attending the WSIS meeting, which lasts until Friday.
He promised to use the opportunity to urge support for the summit's draft declaration and action plan, which include a commitment to promote various mechanisms to achieve progress in this direction, such as differential pricing of scientific journals and open-access initiatives.
Maiani also highlighted the role of scientists in creating the technology that underlies the information society, and said that continuing scientific research will be necessary to develop information technology further. 'Peer-to-peer' technology to share scientific knowledge should also be encouraged, he said.
The conference endorsed the conclusion that education is necessary for development, and that South-South cooperation could play a key role in this. In terms of environment, it underlined the need for accurate environmental information to guide the decisions of planners and policy makers.
Less explicit was a desire to demonstrate that, even though CERN is generally associated with the relatively esoteric discipline of high energy physics and the search for fundamental particles of matter, it can also take credit for having invented the World Wide Web, conceived as a method of communication between physicists.
Nitin Desai, special advisor to Annan on the world summit, told the conference that rather than expressing concern about the 'digital divide' — the gap between those with and those without access to ICTs — discussion should focus on 'digital opportunity' and the advantages that digital technologies can bring, particularly to the developing world.
"The days of the expensive scientific journal should be behind us," he said. "There is no reason why we cannot have dissemination of scientific information much quicker and cheaper."
Reflecting the ways that 'open access' scientific publishing made possible by the Internet is challenging the profit-oriented practices of commercial science publishers, he added: "I expect that [companies such as] Elsevier etc are not going to like this and complain … but that comes with the territory."
Others, however, suggested a more accommodating approach. Atta-ur-Rahman, for example, Pakistan's federal minister of science and technology, said that although free access to the scientific literature is desirable, it "is not going to happen easily".
He proposed instead that subscription-based journals agree to make all their material freely available to those in the developing world 12 months after it had been published.
Rahman also described some of the effects of Pakistan's recent 60-fold rise in its budget for science and technology. For example, two and a half years ago, he said, only 29 cities in Pakistan had Internet access; now the figure is more than 1,000.
Adama Samassékou, president of the WSIS preparatory process, underlined the gap between developed and developing nations in terms of scientific achievement. "There are glaring inequalities in scientific development," he said. "The disparities are enormous and continue to grow."
Samassékou added that the draft declaration of the WSIS, which is due to be accepted by country delegations at the conference when it ends on Friday, "makes it very clear that the future … lies in the ability to innovate". The fact that many developing countries are at a disadvantage in this regard was "a bad omen", he said.
He also stressed the importance of traditional knowledge, and warned that this should not become sidelined by the advancement of modern science and technology. "Indigenous knowledge has served human communities since time immemorial," he said. "Now it is under threat."