Knowledge - common heritage, not private property

SGR discussion meeting

University of London Union; 10 November 2002

Main presentations:
'Science, Knowledge and the Public Good' by Dr Nicholas Maxwell, University College London
'Introduction to the Convention on Knowledge' by Dr Mae Wan Ho, Director, Insitute of Science in Society

Summary by Patrick Nicholson


Around 35 participants attended this half-day event organised by SGR for the first UNESCO World Science Day for Peace and Development. The meeting aimed to explore current concerns about the widening of intellectual property rights and enclosure of the knowledge commons. In particular, the meeting addressed issues raised by the Convention on Knowledge (CoK) currently being developed by the Institute of Science in Society, the International Network of Engineers and Scientists, the Tebtebba Foundation (International Centre for Research, Education and Capacity Building for Indigenous Peoples), the Third World Network and SGR.


The first speaker, Dr Nicholas Maxwell, philosopher and author of "From Knowledge to Wisdom", asked "what kind of inquiry can best contribute to the public good"? He considered two rival conceptions of inquiry; "the philosophy of knowledge" and "the philosophy of wisdom". According to the former, acquisition of knowledge and technical know-how is a separate process from the application of such knowledge to social problems. Dr Maxwell argued that "knowledge inquiry" actually violates many of the basic aims of problem solving rationality. In order to promote human welfare the problems to be tackled are not problems of knowledge, but rather are problems of living or of action. The solution lies, he claimed, in "the philosophy of wisdom" whereby priority is given to problems of living and the development of co-operative solutions, the basic aim of inquiry being wisdom rather than knowledge.


Dr Mae Wan Ho, Director of I-SIS and initiator of the CoK, gave an account of the genesis of the Convention on Knowledge which started with a chance conversation at the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre. Dr Ho discussed the wider motivation behind the Convention, and her own path from a "typical biologist" to activist. She laid out some of the main current threats including the privatisation of human genetic information and TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights). She made clear that the Convention was not intended to become a legally binding international agreement, but rather aimed at speaking for and to global civil society and demonstrating that "another science is possible", echoing the Porto Alegre call "another world is possible".

Dr Phil Webber, Vice Chair of SGR, summarised feedback received by SGR on the CoK to date. There was, he reported, broad support for the idea of a Convention and in particular for addressing the problems arising from recent extensions to intellectual property rights. However, there was some criticism of the tone of the document, which was felt to ignore or downplay the benefits of science, and there were concerns over remarks that were felt to be unnecessary to the main argument and that could reduce the breadth of support. Some suggestions to simplify and clarify the arguments were proposed.


Dr Mike Barnes of SGR argued the case for the commercialisation of (appropriate) intellectual property, speaking from personal experience within industry and as a consultant. He argued that commericalisation is the main way in which the fruits of research are made available, through products, services and jobs. In his view, patents are intended to stimulate innovation for the good of society. However, he agreed that there were problems with the patent system, particularly with regard to the treatment of the developing world, but noted that there was some movement to address these concerns (e.g. the recent Report of the UK Commission on Intellectual Property Rights). Dr Barnes felt that much of what was in the Convention was unacceptable.


Dr Jonathon Goulding of SGR reviewed cases from the ongoing "Science and Vested Interests" files being compiled by SGR, including corporate funding of science (e.g. the saga of the BAT-funded Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at Nottingham), and conflicts of interest amongst government officials such as Lord Sainsbury.

Professor Norman Sheppard (SGR) echoed earlier concerns about the recent extensions of patent rights, a change that challenges the notion that fundamental scientific knowledge consist of discoveries that should be available to all. Professor Sheppard noted that the US, but not European or UK, patent office is government-funded and subject to political manipulation. In subsequent discussion, it was pointed out that European and UK patent offices are heavily dependent on the fees charged to industry and so may well be influenced by the corporate agenda.

Dr Gilles de Wildt of MEDACT, discussed some of the dilemmas posed for doctor and patients by emerging genomic research, specifically the potential erosion of trust and misuse of information. More generally, Dr de Wildt discussed the iniquity of TRIPS which favours rich countries against developing and transition countries. He suggested one option might be to take health and education components out of TRIPS and GAT in the future.


Numerous contributions from the floor added significantly to the debate making this a genuinely interactive meeting. Discussion of the Convention continues and further comment is welcome. Readers can view and comment on the convention at here.


SGR thanks the Science and Society Trust and the Martin Ryle Trust for financial assistance with this meeting.

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