Monday, June 6, 2011


In the morning of the 21st century, knowledge grows faster than anything that humans now produce (with the possible exception of environmental degradation). Faster than food or minerals, faster than manufactured goods, faster than entertainment, faster than money. Since the work of economist and Nobel laureate Paul Rohmer in the 1970s, knowledge has come to be recognised as the primary driver in the creation of the world’s prosperity.

With such a surfeit of knowledge, and with such an abyss widening between the possessors and the dispossessed, it is time to contemplate a return to a more traditional ideal: that knowledge is the common heritage of all peoples. Not a weapon: a tool of domination or oppression. Not an exclusive possession. Something open to all.

For decades the affluent world has bemoaned the plight of the poor world, yet failed to solve the problem. One reason for this may be the assumption that poverty is a lack of wealth and requires massive transfers of money to remedy it. In reality, poverty more often results from a lack of knowledge. This is the reason it so often appears intractable, despite the millions of dollars thrown at it: money may alleviate the symptoms, but does little to eliminate the causes. Knowledge, on the other hand, empowers people to overcome their own disadvantages and gives them the confidence to do so. Unlike money, it can be shared both easily and freely. The economic miracles of modern China and India both began with the sharing of Western scientific knowledge about food production, and by these countries then applying knowledge in their own ways to create a secure and stable foundation for growth in the rest of their economies. In both cases, agricultural knowledge came first, and was a primary driver in the shift from poverty to prosperity and self-determination.

The successful sharing of knowledge about food production led to the sharing of other kinds of knowledge – health care, industrial and mineral know-how, water and energy, information technology and communications, and a growing awareness of the need to educate all citizens and to protect the environment.

If the world’s great challenges in the 21st century are to be successfully addressed, then open science is essential. The cost of this is relatively small and is advantageous to everyone because of the dividends it yields in trade, employment, peace and stability. It has the salient virtue of permitting developing countries to choose those aspects of science and technology that they most need and that best suit their culture, their people, their climate and their environment. If knowledge is widely available within a developing country, it allows individuals and communities to take charge of their own destiny and to build a better future for themselves and their children. This in turn brings prosperity, which can in turn deliver three critical benefits:

• A voluntary reduction in the birth rate, leading ultimately to reduced pressure on key resources such as water and land

• Greater political stability and democratization, resulting in fewer conflicts and refugee crises

• Enhanced trade and employment, to the mutual benefit of both developed and developing partners.

The difference between knowledge and money is that money is easily squandered and then cannot readily be renewed. Knowledge, it is true, may be wasted – but once shared, it is usually remains accessible to a community for a very long time and can be applied when required. In the case of the Green Revolution, it is easy to see how the gift of knowledge, adapted for local culture and conditions, can be used by billions of people to build a better future for themselves and their children. It is also clear that knowledge in the hands of billions of people can do more good and generate more economic growth than it can by merely occupying university library shelves or being restricted to a narrow market among the very affluent.

Because knowledge holds the key to wealth and power, as Francis Bacon said, there is a real risk that if the exponential growth of knowledge is confined mainly to wealthy countries, corporations and elites, it will simply widen the gap between the well-off and poor worlds, accelerating the transfer of wealth and resources from the have-nots to the haves.

In its Framework for Action, the 21st UNESCO World Conference on Science acknowledged that, while science and its applications are indispensable for development, the benefits are very unevenly distributed across countries, regions, peoples and the sexes. It also observed that while science has great potential for good, it also has equal scope for harm and so must be embedded in sound ethical principles. It warned that developing countries, especially those rich in biodiversity and natural resources, require special protection from exploitation by wealthy industrial companies from the developed world. It also urged ‘better understanding and use of traditional knowledge systems’ alongside modern science.

In its closing declaration, the Conference emphasized four issues:

1. There is a need for a vigorous and informed democratic debate on the production and use of scientific knowledge (authors’ emphasis).

2. The benefits of science are unevenly distributed; equal access to science is a social and ethical requirement for human development.

3. Science is indispensable to human progress – but its applications can have detrimental consequences for individuals, societies and the environment.

4. All scientists should commit themselves to high ethical standards, based on human rights instruments. Political authorities must respect this.

Only science can deliver humanity from the consequences of the ‘big six’ crises bearing down on us: the crisis in water; the crisis in resource scarcity; the crisis in land degradation, contamination and species loss; the crisis in food security; the crisis in health; and the crisis in climate change. But none of these can be remedied by governments merely changing a few laws or by companies adopting a few new technologies. Each demands profound change in human behaviour on the part of almost every individual on the planet and, for this to occur, the knowledge of both the problem and what to do about it must first be shared. Science must be open to all.

For example, if climate change could be solved merely by adding geosequestration technology to a few thousand power stations and switching to hydrogen-fuelled cars, it would be fine. But it cannot. It can be addressed only by changing almost every aspect of our lives: from what we eat, to what we wear, how we live, how we raise our children and how many we choose to have, and how we use energy, water and other resources. Such huge behavioural change depends on knowledge sharing on a pan-species scale, rather than on fragmentary technofixes. The same applies to each of the ‘big six’.

The problem is that while the world is very well set up to develop scientific solutions and technofixes, it is poorly equipped to open knowledge to humanity en masse and universally in forms that they can apply in their daily lives and work. The amount invested in knowledge delivery and adoption is, as a rule, only a tiny fraction of the amount spent on research. Indeed, many of the major problems facing humanity could possibly be solved by applying existing knowledge better and more widely, rather then discovering new – though this should not be taken as an argument to reduce R&D.

The answers to the ‘big six’ crises now confronting humanity, and which will dominate our destiny in the 21st century, lie not only the creation of new knowledge but more especially in the effective dissemination, sharing and use by people at large of all relevant knowledge. The fate of humanity in this century may well rest on whether or not science becomes more open.

Source of Information : CSIRO-Open Science Sharing Knowledge in the Global Century 2010

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