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A leading international scientific organisation has launched a global initiative to develop ways of increasing access to knowledge produced by publicly funded research.

The Global Information Commons for Science Initiative seeks to remove restrictions to accessing information that technological advances and new ways of protecting intellectual property have created.

The International Council for Science's (ICSU) Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) launched the initiative on 14 November in Tunis, Tunisia.

"The broad goal is to devise and implement new policy guidelines and legal structures that will promote collaboration in a variety of research domains", says Paul David, an economist at Stanford University, United States, and visiting faculty member at the Oxford Internet Institute in Oxford, United Kingdom.

The CODATA initiative aims to foster "a productive balance between private research and development, and publicly funded open science," he says.

Addressing a conference at UNESCO's Paris headquarters in September, David said CODATA wants to show that rights over intellectual property can be protected and used whilst, at the same time, maximising the social benefits from public investments in research.

According to CODATA, their approach seeks a "collaborative, consensual solution" to the conflict between the advantages of protecting commercial scientific data, and the economic and social costs such protection imposes on scientific enterprise.

It has three specific goals. Firstly, to make people more aware of the benefits that easy access and use of scientific information will bring to society.

Second, to promote the wide adoption of effective ways of increasing the availability and use of publicly funded research findings.

And finally, to encourage and coordinate members of the global scientific community who are already trying to achieve the first two objectives, "particularly in developing countries".

CODATA plans to appoint an international board of directors, and — if funding can be raised — set up a small secretariat in ICSU's Paris offices. Two workshops being planned for 2006 will promote the initiative's objectives.

Announcing the initiative, Shuichi Iwata, CODATA's president, pointed out that although the global economy had benefited from major advances in data generation and distribution, "these same advances have prompted unprecedented efforts to extend the boundaries of copyright, patent and other intellectual property protection".

Among the most prominent supporters of the new initiative is John Sulston, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine, and a key leader of the international human genome sequencing project.

Addressing the Paris meeting, Sulston said that some people are trying hard to confine knowledge, and that new barriers to communication are forming at the very time that common access to information is most needed.

"This culture impedes research and innovation, throttles ethical decision-making, widens the gap between rich and poor, and contributes to global insecurity," said Sulston.

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