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  • The threat to science as a 'public good'


Political action is required to address the excessive privatisation of scientific resources that is fuelling the 'knowledge gap' between rich and poor nations.

At the end of this year, representatives of the world's nations will meet in Geneva for yet another 'world summit'. This time, the focus of their attention will be the national and international implications of the spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs). The so-called World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), organised by the International Telecommunications Union, will be an opportunity to discuss the need for action on issues ranging from software piracy to bridging the 'digital divide' between the rich and poor nations of the world.

At first glance, there appears to be little of direct relevance to the world's research community in WSIS (which will in fact be not one meeting but two, the second taking place in Tunis in 2005). Despite the critical role of science in providing the means that have made the information revolution possible — from semiconductors to the world wide web — and despite the obvious ways in which ICTs have revolutionised both the practice of science and the way that its results are communicated (for example by this website), the concerns of scientists will play a relatively marginal role in the official proceedings of the summit.

Nevertheless there is a key issue to which, it can be argued, the world summit is ideally placed to draw both public and political attention. This is the range of growing threats to the flow of scientific information, both between individuals and between nations.

These threats do not originate in the 'information society'; indeed a central feature of this phenomenon is ironically the very ease and rapidity with which information can now travel rapidly around the world, much of it without hindrance. Rather, the threats come from a different direction — from those who are imposing increased constraints on access to information, including scientific information, in order to benefit commercially from the growth of the information society.

Many feel that, through legislation on issues that range from intellectual property rights to copyright on databases, attempts to turn scientific information into private property have gone too far. The WSIS presents an ideal opportunity to highlight this issue before the world's political leaders, and help forge an international consensus that urgent measures are needed to redress the balance between public access to, and private control over, scientific data.

Successes of science

Ironically, it has been the success of science in laying the groundwork for the information society that itself has led directly to these tensions. In a previous, simpler, era, it was relatively easy to draw a line between basic and applied science, and thus to argue that the first of these was a 'public good' that should be freely accessible to all. This is the basis, for example, on which governments have justified supporting the work of university researchers out of public funds. It is also the basis on which it is generally forbidden to take out patents on scientific discoveries.

Information technology — and more recently its complementary activity, biotechnology — has changed all this. In both cases, as the timescale between discovery and technological application has shortened dramatically, so the boundary between basic and applied science has become blurred, in some cases disappearing completely. In the process, the constituent elements of scientific activity in these two fields, and not just their technological products, have gained a commercial value. This means that there are profits to be made by those who develop new research tools, either by selling to others the right to use them in their own research, or by excluding them.

Recent government policies, previously so supportive of open access to scientific information, have exacerbated this trend. In the United States, the Bayh-Dole act of the early 1980s encourages universities not only to generate income from selling the rights to the results of federally-funded research, but also to extend these rights as far as possible over the ideas generated in their laboratories. In Europe, parallel moves to seek profits out of government-funded activities — including the collection of meteorological and geophysical data — has led to databases in such fields being covered by legislation that was designed primarily to defend the financial interests of the publishers of privately-collected directories of commercial data.

Risks to developing nations

Developing nations are at particular risk from these trends. Indeed, as a number of speakers pointed out at a symposium organised in Paris last week by, among others, UNESCO and the International Council for Science*, the growing privatisation of scientific knowledge is widening the knowledge gap between rich and poor countries at precisely a time when — in principle — the potentially marginal costs of access to electronic information is offering a way to close it.

Poor countries find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, their scientists lack the financial resources to pay for access to the privatised resources enjoyed by their colleagues in the North (ranging from licences on basic laboratory techniques through subscriptions to scientific journals to highly structured information on funding sources)

In turn, this lack of financial resources means that they are unable to develop the capabilities to produce the scientific knowledge and resources required to become a full member of — and thus be able to both contribute to and profit from — this 'science knowledge economy'. How can you feel a member of a global scientific community it your library can no longer afford access to the latest scientific results, or your laboratory lacks the funds required to access certain stores of genomic data?

The need for action

There have, of course, been a number of attempts to redress this situation. One route, explored by organisations such as the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) and the World Health Organisation, has been to negotiate a system of differential pricing for poor countries. More broadly, initiatives such as the Public Library of Science have been pioneering the idea of Open Access to published scientific data (with the page charges required of authors being, in the case of scientists from developing countries, by the Open Society Institute) And SciDev.Net is pursuing a similar goal by providing free access each week to a limited number of articles from both Nature and Science.

But most of these initiatives are ad hoc arrangements. What is now needed is a political recognition that, just as the laws of the free market discriminate in favour of those with the power to benefit from the operation of such a market and against those who are marginalised by it, so it is with the flow of information in general — and scientific information in particular. In issues from intellectual property rights to electronic publishing, an international consensus is now required that the needs of the disadvantaged cannot be met by palliatives alone.

It remains to be seen whether the WSIS is prepared to grasp this nettle with the firmness that it requires. The work of the preparatory committees has not given much reason to be optimistic; moves to create a more equitable equilibrium are invariably resisted by private corporations in the developed world, from software producers to scientific publishers, who would lose out as a result. It will take political courage to stand up to these forces and demand a commitment by governments to change. The scientific community, with its traditional commitment to the open communication of information, can provide the words; but only the political community can follow these up with deeds.

* Symposium on Open Access and the Public Domain in Digital data and information for science, 10-11 March 2003.

© SciDev.Net 2003

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