Monday, June 30, 2008

Report of the Workshop on Science Commons

On January 18th, 2008, Knowledge Commons, Delhi Science Forum, IIT Delhi, Red Hat and Sun organised a workshop on science policy for a very select group of 20 policy-makers. Participants included members of the Planning Commission, which drafts India's Five Year Plans; the National Knowledge Commission, a high-level advisory body that reports to the Prime Minister of India, the Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Delhi and some of the most respected scientists in the country.

The objective was to look at the Free and Open Source model of knowledge creation and examine the impact it can have on India. The highlight of the event was the session on Open Source Drug Discovery, a $34 million programme to fight diseases like tuberculosis, that are prevalent in India.

Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum and the brain behind the event, set the ball rolling by giving a brief overview of how the patent system evolved as a trade-off between the inventor and society, with society granting a temporary monopoly to the inventor in return for disclosure of the invention, which ensured that inventors did not take their creations to the grave. He pointed out that the era of the individual inventor is over and most innovations are now done by corporations. Prabir also pointed out that the myth about patents leading to innovations was not always true and cited the example of James Watt's patent over the steam engine which led to 30 years of stagnation. It was only after Watt's death that the efficiency of the steam engine was improved. Even during this era, collective innovation flourished as can be seen from the invention of the blast furnace and the improvements in the steam engine within the Cornish mines. He added that science is not purely for profit and the current scenario, where patents are seen as a metric of innovation could lead to a situation where sharing is hindered. This could be dangerous in areas like medicine and agriculture. In this context, the Free and Open Source model has emerged as an important paradigm that generated advances that are outside the proprietary domain. Therefore, the question in front of the group was – Can we look at alternate ways of doing research and can these be harnessed for the public good? He said that it is possible to do collaborative work without going for proprietary software. He informed that the new paradigm named 'open source' is not new. He said that patenting of science was absent in the past. Science or knowledge systems always had an open model. Regarding patents, he asked for public disclosure of invention. He said that R&D (research and development) can be done either by corporate or public funding. He placed four questions before the audience: Can we really allow companies to go for serving only those who can pay? Can we do scientific research in a different way? Can we have an alternative way of doing research? Can we stop corporate funding and go for state funding in R&D?

Prof. VS Ramamurthy, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and one of the veterans of the Indian scientific establishment said that knowledge is important for socio-economic development and today, knowledge has become multi-disciplinary. When multi-disciplinary groups are involved, secrecy will only increase the cost of doing research. In science, failures are as important as successes but the patenting system encouraged only the recognition of success and not the process by which a particular result was arrived at. He said that there is need to look at knowledge management in totality and examine whether answers given in the past are relevant anymore. He said that the open source model has enormous relevance for countries like India which has limited resources but unlimited human resources. Dr. Ramamurthy informed that R&D is done to attract investment in R&D. He said that knowledge has become important to economic and social development. Scientific research is not an individual initiative, he added. Scientific research and knowledge creation has today become a total enterprise. Innovation at the grassroots level do not need specialisation, he emphasised. Innovation do not need structured research, which is corporatised, he said. Knowledge management, knowledge sharing and knowledge creation should be seen in totality, he added.

Prof. Abhijit Sen, member of the Planning Commission and one of India's leading economists asked a succinct question, "Do patents deliver?" Prof. Sen pointed out that patents create private property through exclusion, increase the cost of communication and therefore escalate the cost of the production process in science. In areas like climate change, which involved a whole range of technologies, the free flow of knowledge was extremely important. "Property rights are not an unalloyed virtue if the externalities are very large. If patents do incentivise, do they do so in the right manner?" he asked. Prof. Sen pointed out that two of the world's poorest countries, India and China, are now becoming more important globally and for those managing money, it becomes important to invest in these countries. Therefore, these countries should re-examine patents in the light of the new realities of the commons and growing economic clout. Prof. Abhijit Sen (from the Planning Commission of India) reiterated whether patents could deliver what it wanted to deliver. He asked about the production process in science. He asked whether patenting is the right way in getting innovation. He said that patenting may not lead to creation of knowledge for the right kind of people. He said that global warming and climate change are big issues before humanity. He said that technology can play a big role in combating climate change. He asked for looking at the TRIPs issue in this context. He asked for the need to have a relook at externalities, when one is dealing with climate change. He said that inequalities are increasing in India and China, despite facing economic growth. He informed that inclusive economic growth is opposed to patenting.

Dr. Nagarjuna informed that free software is a economic, social and political movement, which is somehow related to copyleft. He said that 'hacking' is exploring new means in a constrained environment. He said that 80% of the Internet runs on free software. He informed about the existence of free hardware. He said that reputation is important for free software developers. He informed about the release of a new book on hacking culture. He said that there is no lack of elitism in this model. The government protects proprietary companies, he added. He said that free and open source software is given along with coder and decoder. He said that opening up of spectrum is essential, as it can help the FOSS movement. He said that the electro-magnetic spectrum is controlled by the government and the industry. The frequencies are currently being sold, he added. The control on spectrum is a crime, he informed. He said that nowadays, biological inventions are being controlled. All institutions like Pentagon etc. have now switched to free software, he said. Free software do not have loopholes in comparison to proprietary software from say Microsoft. He said that mathematics cannot be patented. He said that one cannot separate code from decode.

Jaijit Bhattacharya from Red Hat spoke on patents. He informed that the patents system is not working. He said that colonisation means the extraction of economic benefit from an area of influence through manipulation of the rules of engagement by either force or deceit. He informed about social colonisation, politico-military colonisation and digital colonisation.
Intellectual Property--> International Standards-->Unfair Rent on IPR/ Anti-trust
Digital colonisation happens in DVDs, camcoders, televisions, word processing, WiFi vs. Wapi, WiMax, Processors etc. Every PC has US$ 150 amount of proprietary software. He said that IPR protection and standards are required but it should not be based on: (i) frivolous patents; (ii) monopolistic practices; (iii) beating the system by incrementally modifying patents and getting extensions on the IPR etc. While speaking on the future of technologies, he said that (i) local industry will suffer; (ii) digital divide will increase; (iii) the present generation will teach children those technologies that are proprietary and hence forever condemn them to tech-slavery; and (iv) digital colonisation will happen due to the colonial mindset.

Venkatesh Hariharan said that small libraries cannot access proprietary journals. So, there is need for open content which can be freely accessed by the students and teachers from developing and third world nations.

Prof. V Kumar, Senior Associate Dean, Director, the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology, MIT, said that 'Commons' is not a destination. It is a process. The rules and equations will change overtime. He informed that MIT has launched open content for students and learners worldwide. He informed that MIT open courseware has content for 1800 courses, which has site highlights, syllabus, course calender, lecture notes, exams, problem/solution sets, labs and projects and video lectures. He also informed about Richard Hall. He said that open courseware need to be efficient and should be of good quality. He talked on lab space, e-Science initiatives, Faulkes Telescope Network, access and various digital library initiatives. He said that nowadays sharing of tools is also taking place. He said that although there is cost associated with producing open courseware, but if that is not done, then there is the opportunity cost. The opportunity cost is by failing in competition in today's knowledge economy. He spoke about the interconnectedness between creation, sharing and usage. While talking on value proposition, he talked about proximity, visibility, adaptability, flexibility and interactivity. He also spoke about the iLab Vision. When multi-disciplinary groups are involved, secrecy will only increase the cost of doing research. In science, failures are as important as successes but the patenting system encourages only the recognition of success and not the process by which a particular result was arrived at.

T Jaya Raman from the Tate Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) talked on the defending/expanding of the scientific commons. While talking on knowledge production, he said that historically this has been dominated by the labour of the individual scientist. However, the public dissemination of this knowledge is critical, which means intricate system of verification/peer review/rewards/ peer recognition. He also talked about 'co-operative rivalries'. He said that due to the growth of 'big science'/'big lab', there has been dilution of the role of individual scientist. He said that team work cannot be undermined. He gave extreme examples of big accelerators and space-based astrophysics. 'Large labs' even in areas where infrastructure does not necessarily force teamwork. He talked on the reward/ peer recognition process. He said that large network work together even on theoretical problems. He talked on the conference format evolving into more co-operative research activity beyond simple result sharing/dissemination. He also talked about the rise of multi-author paper. He said that access to 'tacit knowledge' helps in knowledge management. He said that availability of the Internet helps in the development of 'big lab' model. He emphasized on the larger role of tacit knowledge and scientific publishing. He explained the manner of scientific knowledge production in the USSR and the USA/ Europe, which was recognisably the same-despite the profound differences of the institutional structures of the economy and productive activity. He said that the inherent tendency in scientific knowledge production is open knowledge. He asked for developing 'democratic' acceptance of excellence.

Prof. Deepak Pental, Vice Chancellor, Delhi University, talked on biotechnology from an Indian perspective. He said the key question in the case of Indian agriculture is how the market can provide common good. He said that the situation of agriculture in India is critical. He said that agriculture is not like drugs and vaccines. He spoke on the technological aspect of genomics and scientific research into agriculture, which is both publicly and privately funded. He said that African agriculture is suffering from lack of productivity. He said that Indian politicians always believe that agriculture is vital. He informed that the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) was opened by none other than Lal Bahadur Shastri during the 1960's. He said that Indian agriculture is currently suffering from stagnation in terms of low productivity. He talked on the importance of Bt varieties of seeds and evergreen revolution, which is propagated by Prof. MS Swaminathan. He also talked about the issue of subsidies and technology starvation in Indian agriculture. He informed that China is utilising technology far more efficiently compared to India. He asked for intervention of the corporate sector in Indian agriculture. He said that public-private partnership is a new tool to intervene in agriculture and raising its productivity. He also talked on the inefficiency of the official institutions pertaining to agriculture. He said that scientists are not paid well in government sector, so they move towards private sector where they are well paid. There is also the need for open source plant transgenic breeding. There is also the need for profit free interventions in the area of agricultural R&D, he added.

Dr. Samir Bramhachari, Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), informed about unveiling of a US$ 34 million plan for Open Source Drug Discovery. CSIR is one of the world's largest publicly funded R&D organisations which has got 38 laboratories working on a range of subjects from molecular biology to road research to Himalayan bio-resources. The Council has more than 4,000 scientists working in these 38 labs. Dr. Bramhachari noted that there was very little R&D money being spent by MNCs on the typical diseases that afflict Indians because of the relatively low purchasing power in the country. At the same time, MNCs are aggressively scanning Indian academia for research being done by Indian students and adding this knowledge to their database. He also pointed out that collaborative R&D networks like 'Innocentive' had a lot of Indians contributing to it. Therefore, he had proposed to the Indian Government the creation of an Open Source Drug Discovery framework which will harness the collective minds of Indian scientists. The OSDD project will kick off by focussing initially on the Tuberculosis bacilli and the web site will be launched once CSIR finalises the legalities of a "Pharma GPL" share-and-share-alike license. Prof. Brahmachari talked on "Can open source drug discovery address global health care challenges in infectious disease?' He talked on Open Source Drug Discovery model in the area of tuberculosis, which is patent-free and collaborative (; This workshop demonstrated that there is remarkable understanding of the potential of open source within the highest echelons of the Indian policy-making elite. Prof. Ramamurthy summed it up best when he said that in the Government system, change is always a very slow process. However, open source is inevitable and will be the norm 10 years from now. There is need to accelerate the change in favor of open source, he concluded.
--Reported by Shambhu Ghatak, with inputs coming from Prof. V Kumar, MIT
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has recently launched a new initiative in order to develop low cost drugs for infectious diseases like tuberculosis (TB). Generally the poor in India and other developing nations gets afflicted by TB. Since there is want of adequate returns on R&D costs in discovering new drugs for TB, that is why big pharmaceutical companies do not spare much resource. The initiative is in the form of a web portal, which would provide a platform for researchers in the academia, industry and institutes across the world to share their knowledge and ideas and conduct collaborative research on a voluntary basis.
The ‘open source drug discovery’ programme took inspiration from the success of the open source movements in software (including wikipedia) and the Human Genome Sequencing Project, which happened in the West. The website is based on the popular Wiki-based model and is designed to enable anyone to contribute or modify content in a collaborative mode. The ideas will be reviewed by experts and the contributors can get certificates and even monetary rewards if their contributions prove useful. The initiative makes use of the recent developments in bioinformatics, which have enabled research to identify potential drugs by comparing on computer, potential disease targets against large chemical databases. The website will host different types of data on the pathogens and the various tools needed for data analysis. Further, it will have a discussion forum for members to share ideas. A core committee of expert scientists would monitor the process closely. The website would be open to all–scientists, researchers, academicians, doctors, software professionals, traditional healers, and industry. Even lay persons, who had some useful idea or the other to contribute could share them on the website. Among others, the Global Research Alliance, which comprises government and non-profit research organisations around the world, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Hyderabad, Delhi University, Sun Microsystems, TCG Lifesciences and LeadInvent Technologies have already extended their support for the programme.

The discovery of new potential drugs would be in the public domain, thus precluding any monopoly. The CSIR in collaboration with international philanthropic agencies such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would then provide resources to conduct clinical trials and other such steps required to bring the medicines to the market place. The potential drugs would be made generic as soon as they were discovered to ensure that the drug prices were kept low. However, the idea of getting funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation can be frowned by some since there are many anti-trust cases put against Microsoft, a monopoly, in the US and EU by its rivals. Presence of private corporate firms will be always be opposed by people who are against the policies which supports liberalization, privatization and globalization. The programme would initially focus on tuberculosis, since though it was a leading cause of death from bacterial infection in the world, no major advancement in treatment had emerged over the past half a century, particularly since market forces discouraged big pharma firms from developing drugs for such diseases as they had a long gestation period, heavy research and development costs and low returns. It can be recalled here that TB is an infectious disease that is not confined to HIV+ individuals. However, those infected with HIV are at high risk of developing active TB because of low level of immunity. Although TB is curable, poor case detection and patients' lack of adherence to treatment make it the leading cause of death among HIV+ people particularly in Africa. Intensive TB case finding must take place in areas severely affected by HIV through coordination of TB and HIV services. According to the data released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) 1/3rd of the world’s population is currently infected by TB. The estimated incidence of the disease in India is 1.8 million new cases annually and 3,70,00 deaths take place due to it every year, thus making it an average of two deaths every three minutes.

Source: The Hindu,
Family Health International
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