Science meet for protecting traditional knowledge

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, July 5 -- Developing countries need 'special protection
from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the North'
of their rich biodiversity and traditional knowledge, 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
last week.

According to an UNESCO press release, the Framework for Action,
which accompanies the Declaration, said: "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 underlined that also under threat
is the extinction of 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. "Ethics and
responsibility should be an integral part of the education and
training of all scientists," says the Framework for Action.

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

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."

Emphasizing the role of science in development, says the
Declaration, "Today more than ever, science and its applications
are indispensable for development." And to foster this, there is
need for investment in science education and scientific research,
both by 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 Gross Domestic
Product from a country's own funds. 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 science 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 exchanges 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."

The Conference in its Framework has said that it is in the field
of commercialisation of the fruits of scientific research,
particularly in the biological sciences, that ethical issues come
to the surface.

"Ethics and responsibility should be an integral part of the
education and training of all scientists," says the Framework for
Action. "Young scientists should be appropriately encouraged to
respect and adhere to the basic ethical principles and
responsibilities of science," it continues.

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. (SUNS4471)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development
Monitor (SUNS).

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