A New Movement for Open Source Biology Is Launched

Imagine if Microsoft dominated the study of molecular biology because it owned the foundational knowledge of genetics and agriculture. Nobody could do research or innovate without first getting a license from the company. The field could be designed to maximize profits and thwart competitors, just as Microsoft’s Office suite has stymied innovation in word-processing programs.

Science fiction? Not really. As biotech research has become more heavily dependent upon computers, software and the Internet, the field has slowly come under the sway of intellectual property law. Large pharmaceutical and ag-biotech firms are asserting proprietary control over databases and software, and this in turn has begun to limit the sorts of research that biotech scientists can undertake. By controlling key research software and data sets, and requiring payment and permission to use them, large multinational firms can largely dictate the research and innovation agenda for the rest of the world.

What a welcome development that a handful of biologists are now launching the equivalent of an open source movement for molecular biology! Richard Jefferson, the American-born chairman of the Center for the Application for Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA), based in Canberra, Australia, recently started the Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative with a $1 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. I met Jefferson two years ago at a workshop on the problem of the anti-commons (when excessive property rights impede innovation), and was mightily impressed at the ambition and rigor of his vision.

For the past several years, Jefferson and CAMBIA researchers have been developing what he calls “a comprehensive work-around” to re-create key biotech research technologies without infringing on corporate patents. CAMBIA plans to put the resulting “public domain toolkit” of bio-infomatic techniques into a commons protected by licenses and other contracts. BIOS is directly inspired by the free software movement’s General Public License, which has prevented Linux and other software programs from being “taken private.” Jefferson’s project resembles Richard Stallman’s brave leadership for free software in the early 1980s.

Under the BIOS scheme, scientists and research agencies around the world will have access to the information technologies they need to innovate as they wish, without being forced into burdensome royalty agreements or corporate partnerships. Instead of having to follow the top-down research priorities of Big Pharma and biotech, researchers will be able to pursue an open, decentralized, bottom-up approach by using BIOS “free” technologies. Investors will not be able to dictate the directions of new innovation, and academic researchers will find it more feasible to address such neglected problems as sustainable food production, poor nutrition, agricultural practices that degrade the environment, and precarious rural economies. CAMBIA has said it “aims to develop sets of tools that can be used by local scientists and breeders to improve agricultural productivity and profitability in developing countries.”

One of the most intriguing aspects of the BIOS project is how it could transform the business paradigm of the biotech industry with a powerful “open source” model. Just as Linux, Firefox and hundreds of other open source programs have relentlessly gained ground on proprietary software, so the BIOS tools could exploit the networked environment to enlist scientists to use its toolkit and support its open research ethics. Here’s another intriguing angle: Richard Jefferson hopes that Australia will enthusiastically support the BIOS project so that the country could benefit from pioneering a new public-goods business model for biotechnology — precisely what IBM did by embracing open source software. (This strategy, incidentally, has played a big role in IBM’s turnaround in the tech marketplace.) This is a project worth watching.