Science - April 3, 2008

‘Few laboratory researchers take developing countries into account’

Two PhD students who visited the international potato research institute CIP in Peru last year heard complaints about Wageningen. The Peruvian researchers would really like to use Wageningen information on potato genes, but often are not allowed to because it has been patented by Wageningen UR.

It’s a thorny question for Wageningen UR. According to its motto it works towards quality of life, also for poor potato farmers in Peru, but it’s also interested in working with the private sector, which wants to be sure that it can earn money from the results of the research it has funded.

On Friday 11 April, Dr Niels Louwaars of the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands, will chair a symposium on the Peruvian question. He was interviewed about this for a Dutch radio programme on Tuesday 1 April. It is almost impossible to avoid applying for patents, he stated. Not only companies, but also many public research funding bodies set this as a condition for funding.

Some researchers draw up contracts stipulating that the results of their research may be patented, but that researchers in developing countries can have free access to them as well. But not everyone does this, according to Louwaars. ‘Many laboratory workers don’t automatically think about developing countries.’

Louwaars claims that in principle there should be no objections to making intellectual property available for development purposes. ‘The real poor in the world do not represent a market for the big potato companies: there’s no money to be made from them. The companies shouldn’t have a problem with that. The question is, though, how you decide who the poor are, and how you establish that in a legal text.’ Louwaars hopes to formulate a suitable document during the symposium.