Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Open source biology

Ok, the science side of Keats' Telescope is starting to be the tail that wags the dog. Bear with me!
Wired mag has an article about an Australian initiative called BIOS to free up some patented genetic information for widespread dissemination, subject to patents structured like those in open-source software efforts.

The main target of this effort is the interface between agriculture and biotech. Many patent-owning ag companies are not interested in small market agricultural applications, because development costs would be too high relative to the potential payoff. (Wired cites the example of Kenyan sweet-potato farmers, who would benefit from GM yams but probably not enough to lure a major patent holder). Nevertheless, these companies would not like to surrender their intellectual property to just anyone, in case another, bigger ticket, application, emerges later. A similar situation occurs in the pharmaceutical industry. In general, my end (academic) of the molecular biology world is already geared toward dissemination of these kinds of building blocks. For example, journals like Nature stipulate that authors who publish with them make tools like plasmids and sequences available to essentially anyone who asks. The NIH grant system makes similar conditions with the US public's money. Even with these conditions, though, the fruits of publicly funded work often end up effectively in private hands, so the situation which BIOS is trying to address is real. (Follow this link to a Nature editorial on the topic. )

I am very sympathetic to the aims of this movement, both as a share-the-wealth liberal, and on an intuitive level that science at its best is a community effort. However, my strong impression from both the Wired article and the BIOS web pages is that the intent is a "taking," in the legal sense of a condemnation of property from a private owner for public purposes. Is BIOS aiming to reverse or erode existing patents? If I am wrong, and this approach applies only to new ideas, then it will still take some effort to reach critical mass, i.e. for an application assembled from "freeware" to reach the agricultural end users. Rather, I would guess the existing information divide will instead be eroded the old-fashioned way, via intellectual piracy. Digitized data, in particular, are prone to leakage.

Lastly, let me indulge in some elitism. Although molecular biology techniques are astonishingly portable, it is not in the same league as the internet miracle. You can't do much without ultrapure water, for example, or precise thermostats. The community which would make something out of increased dissemination of these data and tools must be an order of magnitude smaller than what is found in the internet world. Don't expect any pajamahadeen knocking off any agribusiness Dan Rathers any time soon.

No comments: