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[SUZHOU] A forum to promote the free exchange of information in the global scientific community was proposed last week at the annual meeting of the International Council for Science (ICSU).

The International Scientific Data and Information Forum — or SciDIF — would help ensure that scientists in poor countries can access information as easily as those in the North, said Roberta Balstad, chair of the ICSU Priority Area Assessment on Data and Information.

Balsted stressed, however, that the forum is "only an idea so far". To take things further, ICSU will set up a committee that during the next three years will define how the forum should work.

An ICSU report published on 20 October raises some of the issues. It recommends that all scientific data, whether produced commercially or through public-private partnership, should be provided free or at low cost for research and education purposes in both developed and developing countries.

One way to make this possible, says Shuichi Iwata of the ICSU Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA), would be through an open-access database.

According to the report, the poor access scientists in low-income countries have to scientific publications makes it difficult for them to learn about research in other parts of the world, and to find an outlet for their own research results.

Also, not all researchers in Africa and other poor regions have access to computers, says Balstad.

Even those who have computers at research institutes face "exorbitant" costs in accessing information through the Internet and must put up with an unstable electric supply, said David Mbah, executive secretary of the Cameroon Academy of Sciences.

Balstad also said it was also important for researchers in developed countries to be able to access information produced in developing countries.

"Scientists in poorer countries can seldom build a strong digital database to facilitate the flow of information," she said. "So we place great emphasis on extending new technology, training and capability building in developing countries."