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TITLE:  Science won't deliver while market forces rule
SOURCE: The Age, Australia, by Richard Jefferson
        http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/07/14/1058034937151.html
DATE:   Jul 15 2003

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


Science won't deliver while market forces rule

In the world of innovation, big money is triumphing over the public
interest, writes Richard Jefferson.

There are sometimes issues so important and so oppressively overbearing
that we don't speak of them, perhaps being disconcerted by their
magnitude or embarrassed at our lack of engagement.

Last Tuesday at the International Congress of Genetics in Melbourne, a
long-awaited panel discussion on "Public Science v Private Science, Who
Wins?" was held. The experts - including Nobel laureate John Sulston -
were from public and private-sector research, business and publishing.

The panel grappled with the "elephant in the room", and concurred that we
have reached a new crisis in genetic science. The very democratic freedom
to innovate - and to deliver that innovative capacity to neglected people
and problems - is seriously threatened.

We used to imagine that scientific endeavour would, as if by magic,
transform itself into public goods, at least when the science was funded
with public money. The world of biotechnology as it could apply to
agriculture and human nutrition is a field where outcomes affect billions
of lives. But we may indeed need magic to make it happen, because the law
and our own institutions have let us down.

The sad reality is that unwise use of intellectual property rights and
big money are now calling the shots, and our public agencies are in
denial, unable to deliver innovations to complement or compete with the
multinationals.

While the science is still doubtless getting done, the conversion of that
science into value for society has been left solely and naively to market
forces that are no longer balanced nor representative of the public
interest. And the public are no fools. They can sense this
disempowerment. The genetically modified organisms debate ultimately
distils down to perceptions of power and profits dictating priorities and
products.

The battleground used to be the information itself. A few warriors for
the public good, including John Sulston, have been fighting to place DNA
sequence information in the public domain, counteracting moves to keep
that data secret and to unfairly profit from it. But these efforts have
been partly frustrated by other people trying to patent the genes and
their uses.

The goal posts have moved, and now the most powerful targets to control
science have become broad patents on the very tools needed to make and
deliver research outcomes.

Technologies such as the ability to transfer a new gene to a plant, or to
"express" that gene in the plant, are called "enabling technologies".
Without access to these tools, locked up by thousands of patents
worldwide, none of the countless promises about GM crop innovations by
public agencies made for the past 20 years can be delivered as a
counterpoint to the corporate offerings. We become beggars waiting for
multinationals to grace us with a glance, and throw the occasional
technology bone our way.

Scientific research, no matter how brilliant, without the ability to use
it to deliver products of public value, is of only academic interest. Our
institutions have not yet made the transition beyond the "academic", in
spite of their business rhetoric, nor have they exercised the leadership
to keep the public good as their core focus, not just their institutional
bottom lines.

This seemingly intractable problem is not without precedent, nor is the
solution obscure. The Open Source movement has revolutionised the
information technology industry to make powerful software tools available
to all innovators, public and private.

With software such as GNU/Linux, Perl and Apache, it has stimulated a
more vibrant and profitable industry in which monopolies can be
challenged, competition can flourish and small markets can be served.

If we are to democratise innovation and harness the creativity and
generosity of spirit that is the best of science, we must reject the
laissez-faire market apologists.

Richard Jefferson, the inventor of key techniques in plant biotechnology,
is founding chief executive of CAMBIA, a Canberra-based, non-profit
organisation dedicated to "democratising" innovation.




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