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A prominent US law professor has proposed an international treaty under which nations would agree not to impose excessive restrictions on access to research findings by scientists in other countries.

The treaty is being proposed by John Barton, professor of law at Stanford University and chair of the International Commission on Intellectual Property set up by the UK government, which reported last year (see Patents 'could hinder poverty reduction).

According to Barton, such a treaty could place special emphasis on the need to provide access to scientific knowledge by scientists in developing countries, for example by stipulating — as in the commission's report — that consideration should be given to granting them access to such knowledge on preferential terms.

Outlining his proposals to a meeting in Geneva last week organised by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Barton said that the tradition of international openness in the scientific community currently faced various threats.

Some were the result of attempts by countries to restrict access by foreign individuals to their science so that their own industries could benefit commercially. Others were the results of restrictions imposed, for example, through intellectual property rights.

Barton pointed out that that World Trade Organisation — originally the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs — had been established to combat similar limiting practices in international trade.

Under these agreements countries had agreed to lower the barriers to such trade by opening up their markets to one another, and the result had been a dramatic growth in the global economy. “The scientific/technological commons could be expanded the same way,” said Barton.

He argued that, as with free trade, the net benefits in the long run would be positive for everyone concerned, even if some countries had to carry a short-term price. “To do this requires a treaty that defines rules freeing scientific/technological exchange and establishes procedures for negotiating regular improvements and expansions of those rules.”

Barton added that particular attention could be given within such a treaty to the situation facing developing countries. “Developed nations, for example, might commit themselves to assist developing nations in achieving specific educational and scientific/technological goals,” he said.

It would also be important to include commitments in the treaty to supporting programmes for providing global public scientific and technological goods for the developing world, such as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and the new public-private partnerships for research on HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

“Dealing with these needs is absolutely crucial to human survival and to the stability of international society - and the programmes are greatly underfunded,” said Barton. Financial commitments “could well be supplemented by commitments to help deal with possible intellectual property difficulties, such as obtaining access to patented platform technologies”.

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