The industrialised countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have outlined an ambitious proposal for a "global research village" based on the Internet. But the scheme could run into problems over funding and intellectual property rights.
Supporters of the plan hope that the wealthy nations will use global communication networks to share their knowledge and research resources with less developed countries.
Last month's OECD conference on the global research village was hosted by Frank Jensen, Denmark's minister of research and information technology, and brought together policy-makers responsible for science and technology, including 140 ministers, scientists and research funding agency representatives from over 30 countries and organisations.
A global research village would encourage the international exchange of scientific knowledge. Eventually the production of knowledge could be organised on a global scale. But there are many problems along the way.
The conference agreed that governments are responsible for ensuring that the science system has an adequate information technology infrastructure both nationally and internationally, including developing countries.
But the financing of this infrastructure might necessitate a "new deal'' between governments and the science community. Some delegates stressed the part that private enterprise can play, through projects such as AT&T's $2 billion fibre-optic backbone encircling Africa.
If governments acted on the conference's recommendations, scientists everywhere would gain electronic access to expensive "big science" research facilities. The networks would be harnessed to cultivate and search for excellence among young researchers worldwide. Money would be spent on digitising research documents and developing electronic libraries. Experts would analyse the information technology needs of the science system, and in particular the universities, of developing countries. And programmes would be instituted to develop the research communications infrastructure of non-OECD countries.
The conference urged European Union research ministers to consider the issues involved in the evolving global research village when they meet to prepare the EU's fifth framework programme for research and technological development.
But as plans are made for a follow-up conference in Portugal in 1998, doubts persist over whether the industrialised countries are really interested in letting the other 80 per cent of the world's population gain access to the global research village.
"Who is the 'global'," queried Austria's science minister Rudolph Scholten, "and who is the 'village'?"