Many moons ago when I started as a policy analyst I worked on an issue called biodiscovery. It’s about the commercialisation of natural resources like the ones found in the Amazon rainforest.
Getting drugs from bugs
As a policy issue, biodiscovery is probably best explained by example. Imagine a Norwegian scientist goes on holiday to Germany. As is his practice when picnicking everywhere he takes a couple of soil samples. When he gets home to his lab he runs a few tests and finds something scientifically interesting about an organism in the soil. That discovery leads directly to the development of a new drug that improves receptiveness to organ transplants. The scientist becomes filthy rich as a result and many more transplants are successful. The policy questions are things like:
- Should this kind of activity be regulated?
- Does the scientist owe anything to Germany where he made his discovery?
- Should the scientist have intellectual property over his discovery?
These questions are complicated enough but there’s two dimensions that make them even more complicated. First, as in the above example, this kind of commercialisation is often international. Any regulation needs to be international too. These issues are discussed in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which has been under negotiation for basically ever. Second, imagine that the scientist’s ‘discovery’ was actually traditional knowledge that an indigenous population had been using since time immemorial. Does that change the scientists’ obligations?
The policy process was grindingly slow, partly because of the need to engage simultaneously with indigenous groups and the international system. I found it pretty frustrating compared to the cut and thrust of biofuels legislation, my other project at the time. But the fundamental issues were very interesting and visiting Ecuador’s rainforest has made me think of them again. Continue reading Biodiscovery: are the megadiverse mega peverse?