Last Friday, January 18th, 2008, we (Knowledge Commons, Delhi Science Forum, IIT Delhi, Red Hat and Sun) organized 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 program to fight diseases that are prevalent in India.
Prabir Purkayastha of the Delhi Science Forum and the brains 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 lead to 30 years of stagnation. It was only after Watt's death that the efficiency of the steam engine 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 had 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?
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 we need to look at knowledge management in totality and examine whether answers we have been given in the past are relevant anymore. He concluded by saying that the open source model has enormous relevance for countries like India which have limited resources but unlimited human resources.
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 incentivize, 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 reexamine patents in light of the new realities of the commons and growing economic clout.
Dr. Samir Bramhachari, Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), unveiled a $34 million plan for Open Source Drug Discovery. CSIR is one of the world’s largest publicly funded R&D organisations 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 for it at 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 our 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 finalizes the legalities of a “Pharma GPL” share-and-share-alike license.
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. What we can do best is to accelerate the change in favor of open source.
Videos and transcripts of this event will be uploaded soon. Thanks to Red Hat India supporting the event and covering the cost of the videos.