Towards a Convention on Knowledge

ISIS-SGR-INES-TWN Discussion Paper

Mae-Wan Ho, Eva Novotny, Philip Webber and E E Daniels

Prepared for conference in November 2002, and subsequently modified


As the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) turns the spotlight on sustainable development, it is timely that this discussion paper highlights that knowledge underpins many issues that will have impacts on sustainability. In particular, technologies and the application of science are intricately coupled with knowledge, and may be used responsibly, or abused.

Unfortunately, modern science has been responsible for, or at least contributed to many problems, including the commercialisation and use of toxic chemicals, hazardous pesticides, atmospheric pollution, and a whole array of modern destructive armaments. The rapid rise of the use of genetic engineering (underpinned by a reductionist science that does not reflect the complexity of living systems) is the latest example of the irresponsible collaboration between bad science and profit-motivated big business.

Yet, knowledge, in all its diverse forms, especially indigenous knowledge and including some aspects of western science, has the potential to bring about a truly equitable and sustainable world. Holistic, organic sciences are once again connecting with their indigenous counterparts, and we need to actively create the space for productive, democratic and empowering engagement.

Knowledge and science has the potential to do good but also bad. The bad includes not only the continued pollution and even the destruction of Earth. For this to be avoided, scientists everywhere must commit themselves to be responsible both socially as well as ecologically. Their work and motivation should not be oriented to narrow commercial interests and to incentives offered by the big corporations.

Society meanwhile must pay great attention to consequences of the work of scientists, and governments must regulate science, and not allow science to run ahead without the prior informed consent of the public. At the same time, governments everywhere should give much greater priority to preserving and developing indigenous knowledge and its use and application; and to promoting the rights and practices of indigenous people, farmers and local communities, for their knowledge holds the key to sustainable development.

We at Third World Network hope that this document, which articulates a commitment to reclaim knowledge and its use for the public good, can play a part in facilitating this process. To this end, we are pleased to invite support for this 'Convention on Knowledge' and advancement of a dialogue surrounding knowledge that will lead to greater sustainability.

S.M. Mohamed Idris, Chairman, Third World Network


In the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), thousands of scientists in 40 countries, represented by the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), and the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility (INES), have joined up with the Third World Network (TWN) to present a wide-ranging discussion-paper on how science and knowledge should be developed and used. The 'Convention', originally drafted by Mae Wan Ho of ISIS, now reflects contributions from many sources and individuals.

We recognise that it may not be possible to reach a complete consensus on what a final document should say, but we welcome comments and suggestions. These will be collated and considered after the WSSD.

We are asking people of all backgrounds and affiliations to express support for the draft Convention that also serves as a catalyst for linking up everyday lives and concerns with western science and indigenous knowledge.

After the WSSD, we hope that this draft Convention will continue to act as a touchstone for debate and discussion and to promote a world culture in which knowledge and its fruits are available to all.

Mae Wan Ho, I-SIS
Philip Webber, SGR
Armin Tenner, INES

This Document
is posted on the websites of ISIS, SGR and TWN. Please e-mail us, at or or to express your support. You can also sign on at the ISIS website directly.

Detailed comments are also welcome. Send them to Dr Patrick Nicholson, SGR, PO Box 473, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 1GS, UK; e-mail: who will collate them.

If you wish to communicate with I-SIS, SGR, INES or TWN, the addresses are

Institute of Science in Society
Dr Mae-Wan Ho, PO Box 32097, London, NW1 0XR, UK. E-mail:

Scientists for Global Responsibility
Dr Phil Webber, PO Box 473, Folkestone, Kent, CT20 1GS, UK. Email:

International Network of Engineers and Scientists
Mr Reiner Braun, Gutenbergstr. 31, 44139 Dortmund, Germany. Email :

Third World Network
Mr Martin Khor, 228 Macalister Road, 10400 Penang, Malyasia. E-mail:


What Does A "Convention" Imply?
Why 'Knowledge'?
Why We Need It
Proposed Elements for A 'Convention on Knowledge'
Background Considerations

The predominant model has failed
Science, ethics and precaution
Corporate science endangers lives
Independent science and scientists becoming extinct
Destruction of indigenous knowledge
Globalisation and biopiracy
Mechanistic science and big business share the same ideology
Holistic, organic sciences emerging
The Way Forward

Working science partnerships
Science and technologies that should be supported
Ecology & energy use in sustainable systems
Science of the organism and holistic health
Criteria of appropriate technologies
  1. Technologies that should be banned
  2. Technologies that should be phased out
  3. Technologies that should be subject to international peaceful control
  4. Research that should be discontinued.


This draft has taken into account comments from Peter Saunders, Dept. of Mathematics, King's College, London); Stuart Parkinson, Jan Tari, Vanessa Spedding and Alan Cottey Scientists for Social Responsibility, UK; Devinder Sharma, Food analyst and journalist, India; Brian Goodwin, Schumacher College, Totnes, UK; Gurdial Singh, Lim Li Lin and Martin Khor, Third World Network, Penang; Aurelio Virgilio Veiga Rios, Public Prosecutor, Federal Prosecuter Office, Brasilia, Brazil; Lim Li Ching, ISIS; Joe Cummins, Dept. of Plant Genetics, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada; Hur Sang-Soo, Centre of Culture and Information Studies Sungkonghoe University, Seoul, South Korea; Antonino Drago, Scientific Committee of the Inter-University Center of Bioethics Research (CIRB), Naples, Italy; Margaret Jackson, National Genetics Awareness Alliance, Australia; Hira Jhamtani, KONPHALINDO, Jakarta, Indonesia; Elizabeth Cullen, Irish Doctors Environmental Association, Ireland; and P N Furbank, Emeritus Professor of English, Open University, UK.

What Does A "Convention" Imply?

"Convention" is to be taken in the most general sense of a 'coming together'. It is the coming together both of civil society and of issues on knowledge that will have major impacts on the agenda for global sustainability.

This "Convention" is intended solely as a civil society document, with no legal binding status. It expresses a commitment of civil society to develop and use knowledge for the good of all.

Why 'Knowledge'?

'Knowledge' is to read in the widest sense to include all knowledge systems that exist in the world today, to underscore the holistic nature of knowledge systems and their independent and equal status. Thus, 'knowledge' in the west will include science and other ways of knowing, whereas for indigenous communities, 'knowledge' might be synonymous with 'indigenous science'.

Focusing on knowledge also stresses the important point that knowledge is not independent of technology, or the application of science. Knowledge inspires and guides and misguides technology. This is as true for western science as it is for holistic indigenous knowledge systems.

Why We Need It

Developments since September 11 have brought biological weapons and nuclear weapons back on the global agenda, raising real prospects of the misuse of science and scientists to military ends.

At the same time, the US and UK governments are introducing 'emergency' legislation and measures that pose further threats to the free exchange of scientific information and knowledge, already compromised by the rampant commercialisation of science in recent years.

The commercialisation of science and the increasing intimate relationship between universities and industry have undermined public trust in science and scientists. More seriously, independent science and scientists working for the public good are becoming things of the past. This is coming at a time when technologies are getting more powerful and uncontrollable, both as weapons of mass destruction and in terms of destroying the social and moral fabric of human societies.

The new trade-related intellectual properties regime in industrialised nations is an unprecedented privatisation of knowledge, which has also encouraged the biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and resources on a global scale. This regime is being imposed on the rest of the world through the World Trade Organisation, as part of a relentless drive towards economic globalisation.

Economic globalisation is widely acknowledged to be the major cause of poverty, social disintegration and environmental degradation over the past decades. At the same time, it is obstructing any attempt to reverse the trends and to implement a global agenda for sustainability.

Fifty thousand gathered in Porto Alegre in February at the Second World Social Forum to voice unanimous opposition to economic globalisation and to call for alternative models of world governance and finance.

Almost no one is targeting the predominant, reductionist knowledge system of the west, that has provided the intellectual impetus for globalisation as well as the instruments of destruction and oppression. It has also marginalised indigenous knowledge systems and driven countless of these to extinction.

But western science itself is undergoing a profound paradigm change towards an organic perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems around the world. We have all the means to bring a truly sustainable and equitable world into being, only the political will is missing. We need a collective vision that could underpin a new model of world governance and finance. Towards that end, we have drafted some elements towards a 'convention on knowledge' that could also serve as the focus of a concerted campaign to reclaim all knowledge systems to the service of public good.

Proposed Elements for a 'Convention on Knowledge'

'Knowledge' is to be understood in the most general sense that includes science and all other disciplines in the west, as well as holistic, indigenous knowledge of diverse communities around the world.

  1. Knowledge must not be used for destructive, oppressive or aggressive military ends. Scientists must take moral responsibility for their own research, to desist from research that is harmful or that serves destructive, oppressive or aggressive military ends.
  2. Knowledge belongs to the community and cannot be privately owned or controlled. We reject all privatisation of knowledge, and enclosure of databases by private companies. We reject patents on living organisms and their parts, and patents based on plagiarism of knowledge belonging to indigenous communities. We reject monopolistic patents on essential medicines and other knowledge that generate excessive profits for corporations.
  3. Knowledge is diverse, inclusive and pluralistic; and no one knowledge system should predominate over the others so long as they satisfy the other elements in this convention. Indigenous knowledge systems must be protected and allowed to thrive. Cross-fertilisations and partnerships between different knowledge systems and practices should be promoted towards improving sustainability and equity.
  4. Knowledge should enable us to live sustainably with nature. It should be ecologically accountable. Its research and practice are fully in line with the precautionary principle.
  5. Knowledge should be open and accessible to all. It must be truthful and reliable. Disagreements must be openly debated in terms that all people can understand. People must be consulted and participate in making decisions at every stage, from research and development to the introduction of new technologies into the community.
  6. Knowledge should serve public interest, not the agenda of corporations. It must be independent of commercial interests and of government control. Public funds should be allocated primarily to research that benefits society as a whole.
  7. Knowledge should make the world equitable and life-enhancing for all its inhabitants. It should address people's emotional and spiritual as well as physical needs. It gives meaning and value to their way of life, and in that sense is profoundly holistic. Its first aim is to do no harm, to human beings and to other species. It must respect basic human rights and dignity.

Background Considerations

The predominant model has failed

The advancement of science - the predominant knowledge system of the West - has been linked historically with progress and civilisation, and general improvement of the lives of the masses, at least up to the beginning of the twentieth century. World War II and the atom bomb shocked the world into recognising that science and technology can be instruments of mass destruction. Still, the idea lingered that science is beyond reproach, and it is technology that has to be controlled. And so the atom bomb, explosives and nerve gases were turned into nuclear reactors, fertilisers and pesticides respectively, all regarded as beneficial peacetime uses. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sounded the first warnings that the earth and all its inhabitants were being poisoned, and will be, for decades to come, unless those uses were discontinued.

Science, ethics and precaution

But the scientific experts consulted by successive governments insisted "there is no evidence of harm", and continued to set permissive standards for corporations to pollute our life-support system with impunity. Holes developed in the ozone layer, and global warming was fast proceeding towards the point of no return.

One thousand six hundred scientists eventually sounded their dire "Warning to Humanity" after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course, they said. The sum of our human impacts is considerably larger than the impact of all the other species on it, and we are already affecting the global ecosystem in terms of the oceans, the global mean temperature and chemical balance. The developed nations are the largest polluters, and must "greatly reduce their over-consumption". Developing nations, on the other hand, will be "overwhelmed if their populations go unchecked". They called for "a new ethic", "a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth".

But the scientists did not seem to see that science too, had to have a new ethic. The predominant attitude among scientists is that science is ethically neutral. So they keep bringing more powerful and uncontrollable means of destruction to the fray.

Since the anthrax attacks in the United States, there is a growing realisation that genetic engineering and biological weapons may be worse than nuclear weapons. Furthermore, together with the new reproductive technologies, genetic engineering could place both production (of food and commodities) and human reproduction under corporate control, subject to global market forces. Market dictates have seduced our scientists to turn life into commodities, still under the delusion that all scientific research is desirable and ethically neutral.

Living organisms, cell lines and genes are being patented, including those from human beings. Databases of genomes and genes, as well as archives of scientific publications, have come under corporate ownership. Scientists are busy patenting discoveries made at public expense, plagiarising knowledge and stealing genetic resources from indigenous communities, including the cell lines and genes of indigenous peoples.

Corporate science endangers lives

For nearly a century, funding for scientific research has been dominated by military interests, and increasingly, by the interests of industry. Since the 1980s, biotechnology has forged a new partnership between the public and the private that has led to the commercialisation of science and the corruption of all the traditional ideals of science.

The commercialisation of science has reached crisis proportions in the new biotechnology 'goldrush'. Top scientists take money to have their names appear on scientific papers ghost written by drug companies. Biomedical researchers have been caught peddling fraudulent cures and even killing patients while profiting from stock-market hype of spin-off companies created at public expense.

In 2001, British physicians proposed a national panel to investigate misconduct in biomedical research, and the top biomedical journals joined up to insist on scientific independence. Some journals have proposed a signed declaration that the papers submitted by scientists are their own.

An editorial in The Lancet sums up the situation,

"Governments, nationally and regionally, have consistently failed to put their people before profit. By contrast, academic institutions could intervene to support scientists when financial conflicts threaten to do harm. But these institutions have become businesses in their own right, seeking to commercialise for themselves research discoveries rather than preserve their independent scholarly status."

Independent science and scientists becoming extinct

Meanwhile, independent science and scientists are being driven to extinction. Instead of protecting the endangered species and fostering open debate on matters ranging from declining academic standards to the safety to GM foods and medicine, academic institutions are actively persecuting independent scientists who try to tell the truth.

Our public finance is being diverted to support research that benefits the corporations at the expense of public good, while promising approaches are receiving little or no funding.

The crisis in science is having serious repercussions. As technologies are becoming more powerful and uncontrollable, we need scientists to acknowledge their responsibility to society, we need scientists who can warn us of the dangers, to solve existing problems and to help create another sustainable world.

Destruction of indigenous knowledge

All over the world, indigenous peoples have been suffering from the dominant knowledge system of the west. People were forced to change their traditions for Western models. Not only do the new, inappropriate practices lead to poverty, they also destroy the environment and undermine the health of human beings. Modern monoculture techniques have, in many places, led to lower yields and nutritional deficiencies, turning formerly productive land into wasteland.

Fortunately, things have been changing since the 1980s. All across Asia, Africa and Latin America, people are rediscovering and reinstating traditional farming methods and crop varieties, improving productivity and regenerating the land. Along the edges of the Sahara, in Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Kenya, African farmers are working miracles, pushing back the desert, and turning the hills green, not by using genetic engineering, or any western aid programme. But simply by integrating crops and livestock to enhance nutrient recycling, by mix-cropping to increase system diversity, and reintroducing traditional water-conservation methods to overcome drought. Yields of many crops have tripled and doubled, keeping well ahead of population increases.

Globalisation and biopiracy

Oronto Douglas (Environmental Rights Action) from Nigeria points out that globalisation is nothing new. The first wave of globalisation was slavery. With the rise of eugenic ideas in Europe and America, slaves and indigenous peoples were considered sub-human. This served to justify genocide and destruction of indigenous cultures everywhere. The second wave of globalisation was the invasion of indigenous homelands by oil, mining and timber companies, which led to massive destruction of life-support systems. Twenty thousand Ogonies were killed after peaceful, non-violent demonstrations against the Shell oil company. The third current wave of globalisation will deprive indigenous peoples of the last shreds of self-determination and livelihood.

At the end of 2001, shamans from 20 indigenous groups in Brazil gathered to denounce biopiracy and demand equal status for indigenous knowledge. The Brazilian government estimates that 97% of the 4000 patents taken out on natural products in the country between 1995 and 2000 were by foreigners. Biopiracy is rampant, taking advantage of weak laws, hiding behind the mask of 'scientific cooperation' and 'ecotourism'.

In February, 2002, twelve countries - Mexico, China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, Peru, Venezuela, and South Africa - formed an historic alliance in Cancun, Mexico, to fight biopiracy and to press for rules protecting indigenous genetic resources. Between them they possess 70 percent of the world's biodiversity, and many centres of diversity for the world's food crops.

Maize originated in Mexico 4,000 years ago. Recently, Mexican farmers were dismayed to find their indigenous landraces widely contaminated by genetically modified corn. They were even more outraged to hear that companies might want to charge them for using the contaminated strains as they now contain patented transgenes.

Another imminent danger is the flood of rice gene patents that may affect farmers' rights to use and sell existing varieties or to develop new ones, now that the rice genome has been sequenced. China's Beijing Genome Institute has scored an impressive victory for the developing countries by joining the sequencing race late and coming out ahead. The Beijing Genome Institute has deposited the rice genome sequence in the public database, while Syngenta is hording its data on its own website. This has dramatically changed the power politics of agriculture, hitherto under the predominant control of the rich developed world. It remains to be seen, however, whether China can put a stop to the rampant gene-patenting that has occurred when the human genome sequence was announced in 2001.

Mechanistic science and big business share the same ideology

The increasingly intimate alliance between science and big business has deep roots. The predominant framework of western science is mechanistic and reductionist. The machine metaphor in biology dates back to Descartes' concept of the body as machine, separate from mind. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection proposed that species evolve and improve over time due to the all-pervasive competition of one against all and all against nature. Darwin was inspired by the laissez-faire economic theory of Adam Smith, in which competition and the 'free' market – expanding under the military might of the British Empire - was seen to be the key to economic success. Darwinism, and neo-Darwinism, in turn inspired the present day neo-liberal economic theory, a more extreme version of Adam Smith's, as it involves unfettered competition, not tempered by moral restraint.

The system of economic regulation and agreements set up after the second world war allow companies to operate without responsibility or accountability. This same ideology is currently driving economic globalisation that will have devastating consequences on the livelihood of the poorest and the survival of the global ecosystem.

This two-way connection between science and society is the clearest demonstration that science is not neutral or value free as has been widely assumed. It also opens the way to changing society through another kind of science.

Holistic, organic sciences emerging

It was the failings of the dominant knowledge system that brought fifty thousand to the streets at the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle in November 1999, which galvanised the anti-globalisation movement. The dominant paradigm has also failed within science. Across the disciplines, from the study of complexity in mathematics and co-operative phenomena in physics to the 'fluid genome' in molecular genetics, the mechanistic conception of nature has been found thoroughly inadequate.

Western science is facing its greatest challenge, to transcend the ruling paradigm to holistic, ecological perspectives that can foster the necessary shift to sustainable ways of life.

Many individuals and local communities are already changing their own lives and the world around them for the better. They do so by learning from nature, and recognising the harmonious, symbiotic, mutualistic relationships that sustain ecosystems and make all life prosper, including the human beings as active, sensitive participants in the whole ecosystem.

The same organic revolution is happening in western science over the past thirty years. Lovelock' s Gaia theory, for example, invites us to see the earth as one super-organism with a geo-physiology that maintains it in a dynamically stable state. This is an acknowledgement that we are ecologically entangled with all life on earth.

Even more remarkable, for some of us, is the message from quantum theory: that we are inextricably entangled with one another and with all nature, which we participate in co-creating. It restores and reaffirms the holistic perspectives that many indigenous cultures have never lost touch with. At the same time, it provides a western scientific perspective that can begin to connect with indigenous health and food production systems and practices, offering much scope for creative partnerships between western and indigenous knowledge.

A holistic science for the west has the potential to transform the meaning and texture of the lives of all who live under the dominant knowledge system, and to create a social reality that genuinely serves the emotional, spiritual and physical needs of everyone. It would capture the common values that underlie the immense cultural diversity of our species.

The Way Forward

We need to substantially alter the way knowledge is acquired and applied. In particular, we need to transform the way scientific research is conducted in the west as well as the areas funded.

Working science partnerships

Scientists should work much more closely, if not directly, with local communities, in order that people's concerns and aspirations can help shape the research. More importantly, scientists could benefit greatly from local knowledge. Top priority must be given to revitalising and protecting traditional agricultural and healthcare systems from biopiracy and globalisation, and to developing sciences and technologies appropriate for the community.

We recognise that not all research could be done with or within local communities. But even for research that is largely laboratory-based, the scientists should maintain close touch with the community of which they are part, and be responsive and sensitive to people's concerns.

Science and technologies that should be supported

There are many existing technologies that will make valuable contribution to sustainability. Rather than attempting to produce an exhaustive list of such technologies, we identify them in the context of two areas that desperately need to be funded.

Ecology and energy use in sustainable systems

Sustainable systems refer ultimately to entire ways of life, including agricultural and industrial production, transport, health and economic and social relationships. Of course, subsystems within the whole could also be studied in their own right. The need for energy efficient production and transport technologies is widely accepted. Not as well acknowledged are the following topics:

  • Complexity and bio-diversity in agro-ecological systems
  • Energy-relationships, energy use and renewable energies
  • Concept of 'waste' and sustainability
  • Renewable energy generation and bio-degradable technologies
  • New forms of public ownership
  • Minimum waste generation and efficient processes in agriculture and industry
  • Novel ecological accounting procedures for sustainability
  • Biophysical indicators of ecosystem health and monitoring technologies
  • Decentralised energy-efficient technologies that promote local autonomy and participation
  • Social environmental indicators of sustainability
  • Localisation and regionalisation versus globalisation

Science of the organism and holistic health

Many new research programmes fall potentially within the general area of "science of the organism". The emphasis is on non-linear complex dynamics, feedback and coherence, which are necessary for understanding complex systems in general. Especially important is the scientific underpinning of complementary and alternative medical practices, in view of the fact that homeopathy is entering mainstream medicine. The biological effects of mobile phones and other electrical installations in the environment, for example, also requires an appropriate biophysical understanding of the organism. We have identified the following topics:

  • Biophysical model of the organism
  • Understanding complementary and alternative medical practices
  • Concept of holistic health that includes the social and ecological environment
  • Biophysical, dynamical indicators of health
  • Social and environmental indicators of health
  • Non-invasive, non-destructive technologies for monitoring health and food quality
  • Effective therapeutic methods based on minimum intervention.

Criteria of appropriate technologies

Although it is not possible to predict discovery and inventions, the above considerations do allow us to make certain judgements concerning which technologies are appropriate for society, not just at the stage at which the technology is ready for use, but especially at the research and development stage.

Apart from the obvious criteria that the technologies should not be harmful or toxic, there are other features to consider. They should respect human rights and ethical concerns of society. They should not compromise the conditions of life for future generations while benefiting the present. They should be affordable and genuinely improve the lives of all, and not just the rich. In the biomedical realm, for example, this would set a policy for minimum intervention technologies that are effective, that would also minimise the costs of patented procedures and products.

One criterion that is perhaps not so obvious is that the technology should not compromise people's autonomy and choice, that is, people should not be coerced into using the technology. This is particularly relevant to genetic diagnostic tests targeted at 'defective genes' that discriminate against individuals or the unborn, or DNA databases that compromise people's rights to privacy. Other situations might involve nano-technological implants that cannot easily be removed by the user.

All of these criteria could be subject to debate. We suggest, however, there are existing technologies and research areas that could be targeted for outright bans or discontinuation.

1. Technologies that should be banned

Nuclear weapons

Biological weapons

Chemical weapons

2. Technologies that should be phased out

Nuclear power stations

Fossil fuel

Antibiotics in agriculture

Agrochemicals: chemical herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers

3. Technologies that should be subject to international peaceful control

Genetic engineering


4. Research that should be discontinued

Any research in weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological warfare


Genetic modification of animals for agriculture, pharmaceutical and industrial productions

Genetic modification of plants released into the environment for agriculture, pharmaceutical and industrial productions

Terminator technologies (genetic engineering for reproductive sterility, either in seed, pollen or ovule)

Gene therapy

Human cloning, including 'therapeutic' human cloning.