The recent World Conference on Science concluded with a declaration that the rich biodiversity and traditional knowledge of developing countries need 'special protection from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the North'.

By Someshwar Singh

July 1999

Geneva: Developing countries' rich biodiversity and traditional knowledge need 'special protection from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the North', says the Declaration on Science and the Use of Scientific Knowledge adopted at the end of a six-day World Conference on Science in Budapest recently.

According to a UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) press release, the Framework for Action, which accompanies the Declaration, says: 'Developing countries, particularly those with rich biodiversity and traditional knowledge built up over countless generations on how to use plants and animal products for therapeutic purposes, need special protection from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the North.'

The Conference in the Framework underlines that also under threat are the complex systems of knowledge within which these natural products were derived and within which they are used.

'Countries should promote better understanding and use of traditional knowledge systems,' says the Framework, 'instead of focusing only on extracting the elements for their perceived utility to the science and technology system.'

The Framework envisages both governmental and non-governmental organisations playing a role in conserving these traditional knowledge systems

In the new context for science at the turn of the century, universities have also joined the economic playing field, joining the trend to patent commercially relevant results.

It is also in this field of the commercialisation of the fruits of scientific research, particularly in the biological sciences, that ethical issues come to the surface.

The complex issues of intellectual property rights (IPRs) that commercial interests raise, also get attention, both those inherent in new discoveries and those inherent in traditional knowledge.

The Declaration calls for 'a need to further develop appropriate national legal frameworks to accommodate the specific requirements of developing countries and traditional knowledge, sources and products'.

Stressing that at the same time, access to data and information is essential for scientific progress, the Framework calls on 'an appropriate international legal framework', such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), to work with international organisations to 'constantly address the question of knowledge monopolies'.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organisation should define tools 'aimed at financing the advancement of science in the South with the full involvement of the scientific community'.

Emphasising the role of science in development, the Declaration says, 'Today more than ever, science and its applications are indispensable for development.' And to foster this, there is a need for investment in science education and scientific research, by both the private and public sectors.

Above all, says the Declaration, 'there is a responsibility of the developed world to enhance partnership activities in science with developing countries and countries in transition.'

The Framework expects governments to commit adequate funds over the long term for science and technology education and research.

While the Framework does not give target figures, during the Conference, UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor had suggested a minimum target of 0.3% or 0.4% of a country's Gross Domestic Product. Countries that invest most earmark between 2.5% and 3%.

'Governments should accord highest priority to the improvement of science education at all levels, with particular attention to the elimination of the gender bias and bias against disadvantaged groups, raising public awareness of scinece and fostering its popularisation,' says the Framework for Action.

It suggests setting up 'an international programme on Internet-enabled science and vocational education and teaching' to 'bring high-quality science education to remote locations'.

The Framework also emphasises the increasingly important role that scientists have in advising governments on policy.

'Scientists and scientific bodies should consider it an important responsibility to provide independent advice to the best of their knowledge,' it says.

The document also recommends that UNESCO publish a World Technology Report as a companion to its present World Science Report, 'in order to provide a balanced world opinion on the impact of technology on social systems and culture'.

It also calls for more and better facilities for training journalists and communicators, on the one hand, while including science communication training as part of a scientist's education, on the other.

Where a country has few scientists in an area, there are many mechanisms, like networks and exchange schemes, as well as international joint research projects, that can help create critical mass.

The Declaration points out that 'most of these benefits (from science) are unevenly distributed, as a result of structural asymmetries among countries, regions and social groups and between the sexes.'

Through the Declaration, governments agree there is a need to promote more equitable access to science and to the benefits it brings, with greater involvement of girls and women.

In particular, it says, 'it is essential that the fundamental role played by women in the application of scientific development to food production and health care be fully recognised, and efforts made to strengthen their understanding of scientific advances in this area. It is on this platform that science education, communication and popularisation need to be built.'

On ethical issues in the commercialisation of the fruits of scientific research, particularly in the biological sciences, the Framework of Action says, 'Ethics and responsibility should be an integral part of the education and training of all scientists. Young scientists should be appropriately encouraged to respect and adhere to the basic ethical principles and responsibilities of science.'

Here, UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), with ICSU's Standing Committee on Responsibility and Ethics of Sciences (SCRES), have a role to play in follow-up. - Third World Network Features

The above article first appeared in SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), Issue No. 4471, 7 July 1999.