Brussels, 24 Apr 2003
A prominent US law professor from Stanford University has called for an international treaty on sharing scientific and technological information, to be based on the arrangements already agreed for free trade under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) system.
John Barton, who is also chair of the international commission on intellectual property, claimed in a recent presentation to the United Nations conference on trade and development that scientific progress requires the sharing of information, and that this collaboration is being hindered.
'Science and technology require a commons of data, ideas and insight. Everyone benefits from the openness of that commons. A scientist or engineer is more effective if he or she has access to the work of predecessors [...]. Exchange of data and scientific communication across border is not only part of the mythology of science; it also contributes to the rate of progress of science and technology,' said Professor Barton.
Professor Barton believes that the exchange of information is being restricted by three things: national protectionism, the expansion of intellectual property protection and the lack of contact between scientists from developing countries and the rest of the world. 'The world as a whole loses,' he said.
The solution, according to Professor Barton, is an international treaty, under which countries would make their subsidies and data available in return for the same gesture by other countries. This is also the philosophy behind the WTO agreement.
'As with free trade, the net benefits are positive, for a more inclusive and open global scientific/technological commons will be more dynamic. To do this requires a treaty that defines rules freeing scientific/technological exchange and establishes procedures for negotiating regular improvements and expansions of those rules,' explained Professor Barton.
The whole world would benefit from such cooperation, said the professor, quoting EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin, who has argued that the European Research Area 'must be opened up to the rest of the world. This openness should enable EU countries to benefit from international cooperation in science and technology, paving the way for closer political and economic relations with third countries.'
In addition to provisions securing equal access to scientific and technological support and capability, such a treaty could also ensure that the benefits of publicly funded research are available to all, and not only those in whose country the research was conducted, Professor Barton elaborated. He also suggested that the agreement could override restrictions preventing students from studying in other countries and researchers from gain experience abroad.
Pre-empting critics, Professor Barton also proposed the inclusion of balanced safeguard provisions in such a treaty in order to ensure that intellectual property rights are managed in a fair way and to protect national security.
And by whom should such a treaty be negotiated? 'For a treaty with a global scientific focus, there are two reasonable negotiating for a. One is UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. This might be a good place to begin, but is certainly more scientific than technological. The better forum for the more technological issues, and possible for all issues, is the WTO,' argued Professor Barton.
'With some adaptation to create the necessary secretariat, the model developed to help the world gain the benefit of free trade could also help the world gain the benefit of a stronger, more open global scientific/technological commons,' Professor Barton concluded.