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Rob Carlson on Open Biology
Jamais Cascio, 14 Jun 05

Open Biology and Open Source Biotech are favorite subjects around here, and were among the very first topics we posted about. The free and unobstructed development of biological science has worldchanging implications, not least for the developing world. Various tools and support systems for open biology have been built, and the philosophy is gradually gaining more adherents.

Rob Carlson knows better than just about anyone the value of open biology. As research fellow at the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley from 1997-2002, he first started writing about the idea of open source biotech, and has long been one of its most vocal proponents. He takes strong issue with those who would resist opening up biosciences in the name of security, arguing that we're more secure in an open research regime than we would be if official work was restricted and censored. He elaborates on that idea in a commentary in the latest Future Brief:

Our response is slowed primarily because we do not have an adequate technology base from which we can rapidly intervene when pathogens threaten human systems. We need better tools, and we need them in a hurry. [...] [Some] tools will be physical objects used to manipulate molecules, familiar to most people who have worked in or visited labs, while other tools will themselves be cells or molecules.

We also need to identify a set of biological parts that can be assembled into systems with predictable behaviors. And we need to build and maintain an adequate manufacturing capacity for those cells, molecules and other biological parts. [...] [The] best way to develop the diversity of biological tools we absolutely require to improve our safety and security is to encourage a distributed economic capability to generate those tools.

The more people who know how to handle the new biosciences, the better. This parallels the argument I made in Open the Future. Our ability to respond to the unexpected or the unwelcome is strengthened by a diverse, collaborative, open scientific environment. Closing off access does not eliminate threats, it only makes those threats harder to understand and counter. I wrote:

..with an open approach, you get millions of people who know how dangerous technologies work and are committed to helping to detect, defend and respond. That these are "knowledge-enabled" technologies means that knowledge also enables their control; knowledge, in turn, grows faster as it becomes more widespread.

Carlson's argument, while familiar, is nonetheless important and worth repeating. Restricting access to knowledge and tools does not improve our ability to defend ourselves, it weakens it. Ignorance does not equal safety.

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Comments

To balance this - in fact to better explain it - people simply need to do some research on the Enola Bean patent hijinx (which I have not found an end to), as well as what happens with proprietary genetically engineered crops in the Western World - where Monsanto has even put U.S. farmers in jail.

Ironically, the one country forcing webloggers to register with the government is the only country which seems to have information on genetically engineered crops out in the open: China. Oddly, the rest of the world had to make up 'Open Biology'. I suppose in China it's just 'Biology'. Solar power technology is going this way as well, so that it can bypass patent-purchasing corporations which have sat on them in the past.

This is one of the reasons why discussions about Open Content in any form - from Creative Commons to Open Biology - is important. More people need to understand that it's not just about software or weblogs. It's also important to practice it.

As Willy Smith and I were talking last night in Panama City, Panama - he said something really good. He said, "The future no longer belongs to people who withhold things. The future belongs to people who help others.". He's right.


Posted by: Taran on 15 Jun 05



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