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The Scientific South
Alex Steffen, 18 Nov 03

There is no such thing as "national science." It is the essential strength of science that it must be universal and replicable by anyone. National scientific cultures, however, do exist, as do national scientific infrastructures and education systems. Science may be universal and equal. The conditions in which scientists work are not, nor are the ends which they are encouraged to pursue.

That's why a Global South scientific movement should snap us to attention.

As David Dickson reports in the latest edition of SciDevNet, Brazil, India and South Africa are building a new developing world scientific coalition:

"A striking feature of the new wave of agreements is that they are grounded in real social and economic needs. There is also recognition that these needs have a similar shape in different countries... These have given the substance of the new agreements both a significance and an urgency that some of their predecessors have lacked. Take, for example, the question of the complex relationship between indigenous knowledge and patent rights. Each of the countries mentioned is rich in both biodiversity and local cultural traditions, making them prime targets for those seeking traditional knowledge that can be incorporated into, for example, new medicines. And each is now facing the task of devising methods to protect their traditional knowledge that are compatible with the intellectual property rules of the new international knowledge economy. There is therefore a strong incentive to share both experiences and novel solutions. Which is what India has offered to do, for example, with its promise to help South Africa set up an electronic database of traditional knowledge comparable to the one established in Delhi by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)."

The new South-South collaboration doesn't stop there. Countries are combining research programs on AIDS, malaria and other diseases primarily impacting the developing world; creating joint protocols for independently assessing the safety of GMO crops; dramatically ramping up basic science education; setting up scientific educational exchanges; signing agreements to increase research funding and hosting conferences on the scientific priorities of developing nations and how they differ from most science currently being done (in the developed world).

And this emerging coalition, prodded by Brazil, also seeks to do something really revolutionary: tie the fortunes of developing world science to global collaborative efforts, like open access databases and open source software. It's a blunt bid to wrestle power over research direction away from the "corporate science" of the Global North and create freely-available technological innovations that fit the needs of the Global South. If they succeed, we'll see how different science can be.

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