Listen in on a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) meeting (about Open Science)

If you are intrigued* by the idea of sitting in on a UNESCO meeting, in this case, the Intergovernmental special committee meeting (Category II) related to the draft UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, there is an opportunity.

Before getting to the opportunity, I want to comment on how smart the UNESCO communications/press office has been. Interest in relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules is gaining momentum (May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC]) and a decision was made in the press office (?) to capitalize on this momentum as a series of UNESCO meetings about open science are taking place. Well done!

Later in this post, I have a few comments about the intellectual property scene and open science in Canada.

UNESCO’s open meeting

According to the May 7, 2021 UNESCO press release no. 42 (received via email),

UNESCO welcomes move to lift the patent on the vaccines and pushes for
Open Science

Paris, 7 May [2021] -“The decision of the United States and many other
countries to call for the lifting of patent protection for coronavirus
vaccines could save millions of lives and serve as a blueprint for the
future of scientific cooperation. COVID-19 does not respect borders. No
country will be safe until the people of every country have access to
the vaccine,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

This growing momentum comes in response to the joint appeal made by
UNESCO, the WHO [World Health Organization] and the UNHCR [United Nations Commission on Human Rights] to open up science and boost scientific
cooperation in October 2020. Early in the pandemic last spring, UNESCO
mobilized over 122 countries to promote Open Science and reinforced
international cooperation.

The pandemic triggered strong support for Open Science among Member
States for this agenda. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the
new coronavirus on 11 January 2020 and posted it online, enabling German
scientists to develop a screening test, which was then shared by the
World Health Organization with governments everywhere. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the world has embarked on a new era of
scientific research, forcing all countries to construct the shared rules
and common norms we need to work more effectively in these changing
times.

The recent announcements of countries in favor of lifting patents show
the growing support for open scientific cooperation. They also coincide
with the five-day meeting of UNESCO Member States to define a global
standard-setting framework on Open Science, which aims to develop new
models for the circulation of scientific knowledge and its benefits,
including global commons.

The outcomes of the meeting will lead to a Global Recommendation on Open
Science to be adopted by UNESCO’s 193 Member States at the
Organization’s General Conference in November 2021. This
Recommendation aims to be a driver for shared global access to data,
publications, patents, software, educational resources and technological
innovations and to reengage all of society in science.

More Information on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1]

After clicking on UNESCO’s events link (in the above), you’ll be sent to a page where you’ll be invited to link to a live webcast (it’s live if there’s a session taking place and there will be on May 10, May 11, and May 12, 2021). If you’re on the West Coast of Canada or the US, add nine hours since the meeting is likely taking place on Paris (France) time (so at 2 pm PT, you’re not likely to hear anything), where UNESCO is headquartered. When you get to the page hosting the live webcast, click on the tab listing the current day’s date.

I managed to listen to some of the meeting this morning (May 7, 2021) at about 8 am my time; for the participants, it was a meeting that ran late. The thrill is being able to attend or listen in. From a content perspective, you probably need to be serious about open science and the language used to define it and make recommendations about it.

Comments on open science and intellectual property in Canada

Mentioned earlier was the rising momentum for relaxing COVID-19 vaccine patent rules, I looked carefully at the May 6, 2021 Associated Press news item on CBC] and couldn’t find any evidence that Canada is actively supporting the idea. However, the Canadian government has indicated a willingness to discuss relaxing the rules,

France joined the United States on Thursday [May 6, 2021] in supporting an easing of patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines that could help poorer countries get more doses and speed the end of the pandemic. While the backing from two countries with major drugmakers is important, many obstacles remain.

The United States’ support for waiving the protections marked a dramatic shift in its position. Still, even just one country voting against such a waiver would be enough to block efforts at the World Trade Organization [WTO].

With the Biden administration’s announcement on Wednesday [May 5, 2021], the U.S. became the first country in the developed world with big vaccine manufacturing to publicly support the waiver idea floated by India and South Africa last October at the WTO.

“I completely favour this opening up of the intellectual property,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday [May 6, 2021] on a visit to a vaccine centre.

Many other leaders chimed in — though few expressed direct support. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the U.S. announcement was “a very important signal” and that the world needs “free access” to patents for the vaccines.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the U.S. position “great news” but did not directly respond to a question about whether his country would support a waiver.

Canada’s International Trade Minister Mary Ng told the House of Commons on Thursday that the federal government will “actively participate” in talks to waive the global rules that protect vaccine trade secrets. [emphases mine]

[Canada’s] International Development Minister Karina Gould said the U.S. support for waiving patents is “a really important step in this conversation.” [emphases mine]

Big difference between supporting something and talking about it, eh?

Open science in Canada

Back in 2016, the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or Montreal Neuro) in Québec, Canada was the first academic institution in the world to embrace an open science policy. Here’s the relevant excerpt from my January 22, 2016 posting (the posting describes the place that Montreal Neuro occupies historically in Canada and on the global stage),

.. David Bruggeman tells the story in a Jan. 21, 2016 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

The Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) at McGill University announced that it will be the first academic research institute to become what it calls ‘Open Science.’  As Science is reporting, the MNI will make available all research results and research data at the time of publication.  Additionally it will not seek patents on any of the discoveries made on research at the Institute. [emphasis mine]

Will this catch on?  I have no idea if this particular combination of open access research data and results with no patents will spread to other university research institutes.  But I do believe that those elements will continue to spread.  More universities and federal agencies are pursuing open access options for research they support.  Elon Musk has opted to not pursue patent litigation for any of Tesla Motors’ patents, and has not pursued patents for SpaceX technology (though it has pursued litigation over patents in rocket technology). …

What about intellectual property (IP) and the 2021 federal budget?

Interestingly, the 2021 Canadian federal budget, released April 19, 2021, (see my May 4, 2021 posting) has announced more investments in intellectual property initiatives,

“Promoting Canadian Intellectual Property

As the most highly educated country in the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], Canada is full of innovative and entrepreneurial people with great ideas. Those ideas are valuable intellectual property that are the seeds of huge growth opportunities. Building on the National Intellectual Property Strategy announced in Budget 2018, the government proposes to further support Canadian innovators, start-ups, and technology-intensive businesses. Budget 2021 proposes:

  • $90 million, over two years, starting in 2022-23, to create ElevateIP, a program to help accelerators and incubators provide start-ups with access to expert intellectual property services.
  • $75 million over three years, starting in 2021-22, for the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program to provide high-growth client firms with access to expert intellectual property services.

These direct investments would be complemented by a Strategic Intellectual Property Program Review that will be launched. It is intended as a broad assessment of intellectual property provisions in Canada’s innovation and science programming, from basic research to near-commercial projects. This work will make sure Canada and Canadians fully benefit from innovations and intellectual property.”

Now, it’s back to me and the usual formatting for an upcoming excerpt. As for Canada’s National Intellectual Property Strategy, here’s more from the April 26, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release,

Canada’s IP Strategy will help Canadian entrepreneurs better understand and protect intellectual property and also get better access to shared intellectual property. Canada is a leader in research, science, creation and invention, but it can do more when it comes to commercializing innovations.

The IP Strategy will help give businesses the information and confidence they need to grow their business and take risks.

The IP Strategy will make changes in three key areas:

LEGISLATION

The IP Strategy will amend key IP laws to ensure that we remove barriers to innovation, particularly any loopholes that allow those seeking to use IP in bad faith to stall innovation for their own gain.

The IP Strategy will create an independent body to oversee patent and trademark agents, which will ensure that professional and ethical standards are maintained, and will support the provision of quality advice from IP professionals.

LITERACY AND ADVICE

As part of the IP Strategy, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office will launch a suite of programs to help improve IP literacy among Canadians.

The IP Strategy includes support for domestic and international engagement between Indigenous people and decision makers as well as for research activities and capacity building.

The IP Strategy will also support training for federal employees who deal with IP governance.

TOOLS

The IP Strategy will provide tools to support Canadian businesses as they learn about IP and pursue their own IP strategies.

The government is creating a patent collective to bring together businesses to facilitate better IP outcomes for members. The patent collective is the coming together of firms to share in IP expertise and strategy, including gaining access to a larger collection of patents and IP. 

I’m guessing what the government wants is more patents; at the same time, it does not want to get caught up in patent thickets and the patent troll wars often seen in the US. The desire for more patents isn’t simply ‘protection’ for Canadian businesses, it’s born also from a desire to brag (from “A few final comments subsection” in my May 4, 2021 posting on the Canadian federal budget),

The inclusion of a section on intellectual property in the budget could seem peculiar. I would have thought that years ago before I learned that governments measure and compare with other government the success of their science and technology efforts by the number of patents that have been filed. [new emphasis mine] There are other measures but intellectual property is very important, as far as governments are concerned. My “Billions lost to patent trolls; US White House asks for comments on intellectual property (IP) enforcement; and more on IP” June 28, 2012 posting points to some of the shortcomings, with which we still grapple.

Not just a Canadian conundrum

IP (patents, trademarks, and copyright) has a long history and my understanding of patents and copyright (not sure about trademarks) is that they were initially intended to guarantee inventors and creators a fixed period of time in which to make money from their inventions and/or creations. IP was intended to encourage competition not stifle it as happens so often these days. Here’s more about patents from the Origin of Patents: Everything You Need to Know webpage on the upcounsel.com website (Note: Links have been removed),

Origins of Patent Law and the Incentive Theory

It is possible to trace the idea of patent law as far back as the 9th century B.C. in ancient Greece.  However, one of the most vital pieces of legislation in the history of patents is the English Statute of Monopolies. The Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies to end monopolies, which stifled competition. 

However, for about a decade, the Statute issued “letters patent” to allow for limited monopolies. This measure was seen as a way of balancing the importance of providing incentives for inventions with the distaste for monopolies. [emphasis mine] While monopolies usually don’t offer any innovative benefits, inventors need to have an incentive to create innovations that benefit society.

Changes?

As you can see in the ‘Origins of Patent Law’ excerpt , there’s a tension between ensuring profitability and spurring innovation. It certainly seems that our current approach to the problem is no longer successful.

There has been an appetite for change in how science is pursued, shared, and commercialized. Listening in on UNESCO’s Open Science meeting:
https://events.unesco.org/event?id=1907937890&lang=1033 [1] (May 10 -12, 2021) is an opportunity to see how this movement could develop. Sadly, I don’t think the World Trade Organization is going to afford anyone the opportunity to tune in to discussions about relaxing COVDI-19 vaccine patent rules. (sigh)

As for the Canadian government’s ‘willingness to talk’ I expect the Canadian representative at the UNESCO will be very happy to adopt open science while the Canadian representative at the WTO will dance around without committing.

If you are inclined, please do share your thoughts on either of the meetings or on the move towards open science.

*’intrigues’ changed to ‘intrigued’ on May 13, 2021.

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