Science - November 6, 2013

Right to science

Rob Ramaker

Patents put scientists in developing countries at a disadvantage, claims philosopher Christian Timmermann in a thesis he will defend on 1 November. hey prevent developing countries from fully participating in the pursuit of science.

Why do patents have a negative impact on developing countries?

‘Worldwide, the distribution of wealth is already extremely unequal now. Patents send up the price of innovations so that something that is already expensive in a developed country is downright unaffordable anywhere else. Newcomers – including those in developed countries – also have a hard time because patents give the holder control over the development of new products.’

You see being able to participate in science as a human right.

‘Indeed. Along with a few other writers, I have a different take on human rights. It is not just a fair share but participation in science that is a human right. Imagine that a social class below a certain income bracket were excluded: we would be furious. You can’t exclude people from such an important area of the culture.’

Why is science so important for developing countries?

‘Science and technology shape our society. If you don’t participate you have no influence over the research agenda and therefore no influence over future technologies. These will not always be culturally acceptable. What is more, the current situation creates dependence. Developing countries are dependent on the north. One side is always the saviour and the other always the one that needs saving.’

If we combat poverty in developing countries won’t the knowledge gap disappear automatically?

‘You cannot postpone participation in science until you have solved hunger and poverty. The point is, they go hand in hand. And the developed world will bene­fit too. You make use of new perspectives and attitudes and the enormous motivation people have. Just think how motivated a plant scientist will be in a country where there is hunger.’

How could a new or improved system com about?

‘I think the Open Access movement is crucial to this. In that movement people are experimenting with all sorts of ways of making research accessible to the public. You can also add a ‘humanitarian license’ to your patent. That means that people in the least developed countries can get a license free or cheaply. Many Wageningen researchers already make use of that. Personally I have made all my publications available to the public.’