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Biotech Science

The Opening of Biotech 200

RockinRobStar writes "ABC Science have posted an article about an Australian geneticist, Dr Richard Jefferson, pushing for "free access to the scientific tools of modern biology and genetics...just as computer programming tools were shared in the open source software movement." "The scientific tools...would be licensed under a similar agreement as the general public licence". Dr Jefferson plans to present his program to the World Economic Forum in January."
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The Opening of Biotech

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  • Interesting circle (Score:4, Interesting)

    by iamdrscience ( 541136 ) <> on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:16AM (#7599278) Homepage
    All the time in articles, books, etc. relating to open source and free software people mention Newton's assertion that science is based on other people's work and that it stands "on the shoulders of giants". It's interesting now that [b]science[/b], in this article, is making an analogy to free/open source software for the same reasons. Kind of the completion of a circle, eh?

    Also, although I know very very little about "biotech", I like it just because it's one letter away from "BIOTCH".
  • Re:Problems (Score:3, Interesting)

    by krumms ( 613921 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:20AM (#7599334) Journal
    The problem with this is that scientists want to get credit for what they are doing. Both of my parents are scientists and even though they want to get more people interested in science they want to get the credit, not someone else who manages to see that two and two equals four where they didn't.

    How unproductive. No wonder cancer hasn't been cured yet, if this is the sort of "me, me, me" squabbling that goes on in science.

    Understandable though, assuming that this credit leads to further funding for the said scientists.
  • by G4from128k ( 686170 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:24AM (#7599389)
    Open access to biotechnology may have unintended consequences that reduce the utility of the biotech knowledge. As much as people hate patents, they do serve a purpose. Giving someone a monopoly right to sell something gives them the incentive to spend money on development. Drug development is hideously expensive -- without some hope of a billion dollar blockbuster payoff, companies aren't going to invest anything in open-access pharmaceuticals.

    Now if we could convince goverments to spend money on all aspects of pharma development, we might be OK. Unfortunately, I'd bet that the funding government would get cranky when other countries freely exploit the medicines that the one government paid for. Citizens of countries that fund pharma R&D might reasonably object to shouldering all the burden of developing new medicines for the whole world. Does anyone think the UN would be an effective body for funding the rapid development of new drugs?

    Finally, patents are a form of open access (at least in the U.S.). Patents force companies to publish their inventions. This gives competitors a leg up in innovating around any new patented process. Its not as open as the proposed Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) program, but the current system is not as closed as detractors would have you believe.
  • by smd4985 ( 203677 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:30AM (#7599471) Homepage
    Wired [] has an interesting article related to this story. Summary: Open-Source as a design philosophy will be applied to an increasingly diverse set of disciplines.
  • by randall_burns ( 108052 ) <> on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:32AM (#7599489)
    Historically, major new industries have put new practices in place. Industrialization for example was a major part of the impulse behind universal, cumpulsory education in Germany.

    What I read here:

    Major portions of the biotech community feel their field would be enhanced by moving towards something more like the Open Source community. The implication of this is that the intellectual property rules may need to change a bit for this to really happen. What might motivate the powers that be to want to make this happen: most wealth/political power in the world is controlled by older folks. Biotech is especially important to the old because biotech has the serious possibility of extending human life spans-and more importantly extending the quality of human life. Basically the political elites have a choice:

    Continue playing their games-and die at age 70-85.

    Listen to the biotech folks and live comfortably an extra 15-30 years.

    I think that the powers-that-be will choose the second choice. We'll see a greater mix in means of rewarding inventors as the biotech revolution develops.

  • by sbma44 ( 694130 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:35AM (#7599529)
    I don't know how we're going to restrict the spread of advanced biotech knowledge, but I wish I did. Yeah, information wants to be free -- I agree, until that information can kill people. In fifteen years an undergrab microbio degree will be enough to create a plague. The methods won't require particularly exotic reagents and the equipment won't be hard to get.

    This is not equivalent to the debate over publishing exploit source. There is no guarantee that biological countermeasures can be created to counteract bio-malware, so increasing the pool of exploit-related knowledge is not to our benefit. Besides which, people will die while we wait for the equivalent of patches to be submitted.

    Is it possible to amend the GPL to prohibit its use for distributing potentially dangerous biological information -- something like the ebola genome? Perhaps a review board could be established for biological information that is to be distributed under the GPL. I realize this does nothing to stop the information's spread under a different scheme, but at least it might discourage the foolish from cross-applying OSS principles to arenas where they most decidedly do NOT belong.

  • Re:It's a neat idea. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Luke727 ( 547923 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:36AM (#7599536) Homepage Journal
    The problem is the lack of food for regular people. The warlord (or whatever) steals all their livestock, seed, equipment, etc. and keeps it for himself and his thugs. This openness of technology will not help these people. They will continue to die in the streets. And we will let them. Because politics is more important than human life.
  • Re:Problems (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SemperUbi ( 673908 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:36AM (#7599538)
    It's totally reasonable for scientists to get credit for the work they do. One problem is the way that credit is scored, for purposes of advancement. Scientists get a disproportionate amount of credit for first-authoring primary research studies that get published in peer-reviewed print journals. Credit for being an author other than first (or last), or writing a review article, is much less, and credit for work that doesn't result in publication of one's name as author is almost negligable.

    People generally want a strong CV and the chance to advance or secure their position. If the system rewarded people more for cooperating, for sharing good ideas and theories more openly and for participating in large collaborative projects, scientists would follow suit. The current system is pretty circular, since those who make promotion/advancement decisions are generally those who benefited from old system and want to perpetuate it.

  • by Space cowboy ( 13680 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @11:42AM (#7599591) Journal
    For the last few hundred years, commerce has been the driving goal behind human development, barring the occasional major war... The reasons are based in the costs of production, dissemination, and utilisation of knowledge and materials, versus the potential profit of using that information.

    One new factor is communication, which has advanced to the level where no great expense is required for long-distance communications. Merchant princes rose and fell by their application of knowledge that others didn't have, today we have near-as-dammit instant communication with negligible costs. We pay people in other countries, and have a truly global market.

    There is another new factor coming into play: zero- (or at least, minimal) cost goods.Until recently, manufacturing costs were per-copy of an object, now we deal in abstract knowledge more often, recreating the object we desire locally. This obviously doesn't apply to real physical objects, but how often do we download models, music, video, programs, and data. There is negligible duplication costs involved here, so costs can be amortised over the whole collection, and are far less per item.

    Perhaps we can see forward to a future where digital assets have limited protection; the competitive advantage of being first compensating for the lower barrier-to-entry for companies. The first steps towards a truly creative commons, open to all without restriction. If such a thing were ever to become reality, the GPL or a similar (not-for-profit-without-forking-out-dosh) licence would be ideal. In that case, I think we'd all be significantly more grateful to RMS than we are today...

    Or perhaps not. (And I leave the reader to decide which point I refer to with 'not' :-)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 01, 2003 @01:11PM (#7600610)
    You've presented what is essentially the ostrich strategy- bury your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away, or never comes to pass. Which can only have a chance of working if everybody does it... otherwise someone else will develop a new and improved ebola while you're preventing research that could lead to a cure, and you're much worse off than you would have been.


    Granted, the "GPL the genome! Homo sapiens isn't free enough! That's GNU/man you insensitive clod!" idea sounds a bit extreme. Somehow, though, I'd rather have this stuff out in the open than "owned" by some pharmaceutical corporation; I think this has something to do with the author's intent. I don't want to live in a world where I'm infringing on some megacorp's intellectual property just by, you know, living.
  • Biotech != Medicine (Score:2, Interesting)

    by DNAman ( 561905 ) on Monday December 01, 2003 @02:36PM (#7601525)

    Dr. Jefferson is interested in agricultural biotechnology. While most people who commented on this article have equated biotechnology to medical research, this is not the area in which open science is most needed. It is in the agricultural sector where funding is tight, profit margins slim and there was a long history of sharing materials and methods in the public (even private) sector that open science is desperately needed. In the 1980s, the ability to patent methods and living things in combination with the Bayh-Dole act started a chain of events which has diminished the ability of agricultural researchers to work for the public efficiently.

    Some will argue that the ability of companies to patent materials and methods promotes research by promising a return. As a scientist working in the field of plant breeding I see that this is not the case here. Large biotech / seed companies are most interested in working on species which are grown widely (e.g. corn, soybeans and cotton) and on which they can make a profit due to economies of scale. Many minor crops which are important to those people who grow and consume them (particularly in the developing world) do not get the attention of the large companies. Plant breeding efforts must be regional because plants interact with their environment in ways that cannot be easily predicted. Therefore a variety bred for use in the midwest of the United States might not be suitable for use in the northeast let alone Africa or Asia. If the modern molecular biology tools which are useful are encumbered by patents which restrict their use (either directly or through licensing costs) the ability of people all over the world to benefit from scientific knowledge and use that knowledge to feed themselves is lost.

    This problem is compounded by the fact that in the development of new varieties many genes / methods are included. Multiple parties might be patent holders in one variety which could easily price the variety out of the market. An example (which was resolved with complex negotiations) is the so called golden rice (contains increased vitamin A precursors) which involves about 30 different patents.

    As others have pointed out, a system of open tools / technologies in the sciences is great for the many of the same reasons free software development works so well. There are some of us who are working to promote both of these things in the agricultural sciences. If we succeed, plant breeders in developing countries will be able to tackle the difficult problems which face their farmers and their people and they will be able to do it without having to rely on the generosity of the developed nations and / or multinational corporations.

...though his invention worked superbly -- his theory was a crock of sewage from beginning to end. -- Vernor Vinge, "The Peace War"