Science - April 17, 2008

Knowledge transfer or money-spinner?

It should be possible to use knowledge generated at Wageningen UR to fight hunger in the South. At the same time, Wageningen UR cannot avoid being part of the system of intellectual property, even though patents limit the South’s access to technology it develops. Solutions to this dilemma were sought at a symposium in the WICC on Friday 11 April.

Research done by the International Potato Center in Peru
Experts from all over the world gathered to discuss intellectual property and biotechnology and to seek possible solutions to the dilemma these pose. The symposium was organised after two Wageningen PhD researchers visited the international potato research institute CIP in Peru last year. While there, they heard complaints that the institute cannot use Wageningen knowledge and technology because it is protected by patents. ‘This is a general problem, and doesn’t just apply to the CIP, but to all CGIAR institutes. And it’s not only true of Wageningen UR, but all private and public knowledge institutions,’ Dr Marc Ghislain of the CIP hastens to say. He was invited to explain more about the dilemma at the symposium.

Like the other CGIAR institutes, the CIP performs agricultural research aimed at benefiting the poor in developing countries. The results of that research must therefore be made freely or cheaply available. According to Ghislain, this is almost impossible for the CIP: it can hardly use any of the biotechnology developed by other institutes as this is increasingly protected. The situation has to change if poor farmers in developing countries are to profit as well from scientific knowledge, was Ghislain’s message.

Public institutions such as Wageningen University, like the private DLO research institutes, are forced to go along with the trend of increasing intellectual property, said Dr Niels Louwaars of Wageningen International and one of the symposium organisers. Within this trend, however, Louwaars thinks that Wageningen UR should seek ways to make knowledge and technology available to the poor and to make sure that the freedom of research institutes in the South is not limited. But, according to Louwaars, the issue of patents cannot be avoided. High-tech scientific research has become so expensive that it cannot be funded by public money alone.

An example of a public-private initiative is the Centre for BioSystems Genomics (CBSG), which has 50 million euros of funds for the coming five years, and a target of 25 patents, 20 licences and 2 spin-offs. But the CBSG also has an alternative to intellectual property, in the form of two (albeit small) research projects whose results end up in the public domain. A more ambitious example of freely available biotechnology is CAMBIA. This is a worldwide biotechnology network with headquarters in Australia which does file patents, but allows its technology to be freely used under a ‘biological open source licence’. Those who use the technology also have to make their own results freely available, resulting in a system similar to open source software.

Ghislain is not very optimistic about open source biotechnology, however. ‘It is too revolutionary and can only work with completely new technology. I am more hopeful about humanitarian licences.’ These are agreements in the form of contracts between different institutions, mostly in consortiums, in which there is a clause that the technology may be used freely if it is for the benefit of the poor in the South. Wageningen UR also has similar clauses in some of its contracts.

But agreements like this are becoming more and more difficult to make, says Ghislain, and in recent years another factor has come into play. Many countries have signed the Cartagena protocol, an international treaty on biosafety which states that the developer of gm crops is responsible for damage that occurs as a result of their use. Companies are frightened of being held responsible if gm crops arise out of technology made available with a free licence to research institutes in developing countries.

Towards the end of the symposium, Rector Professor Martin Kropff was invited to make a contribution. To make more knowledge available in the South, Kropff argued, it is at least as important to ensure that everyone has access to scientific articles. ‘Many of our articles are published in expensive journals. That is a bigger barrier to sharing knowledge than patents.’ Kropff further contextualised the importance of patents: ‘What’s more, many Wageningen UR employees contribute to the millennium goals and, for most of that research, patents are not even an issue. We transfer a lot of knowledge, for example through all the PhD students we have from the South.

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