Scientific Knowledge as a Public Good

Life scientists are accustomed to thinking about quantifying the products of their knowledge in terms of such things as papers published, discoveries made, or, in the case of applied science, diseases treated.

By | June 20, 2005


Courtesy of U.S. Agency for International Development

Life scientists are accustomed to thinking about quantifying the products of their knowledge in terms of such things as papers published, discoveries made, or, in the case of applied science, diseases treated. But there is another useful way to think about the value of scientific knowledge, which is as a public good.

The public goods characteristic of ideas and knowledge – that they are freely available to all and are not diminished by use – can be traced to St. Augustine (circa 400). Adam Smith laid the conceptual economic basis for public goods in 1776, but economists did not give much attention to them until the mid-1950s. However, it has been difficult to reduce knowledge to numerical form and measurement, particularly in the basic sciences, so that there is little hard data on the linkage between scientific knowledge and growth.1

Still, it is safe to say that scientific knowledge in its pure form is a classic public good. As such, it is a keystone for innovation and in its more applied forms is a basic component of the economy. The problem, however, is that the production of such knowledge has a cost, and the results are not necessarily available to all. In his presidential address at the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, Bruce Alberts noted that "the efforts that many scientists are making to strengthen world science by disseminating both knowledge and research tools...are being counteracted by several forces."2

Methods of communicating knowledge have vastly improved, but patents and copyrights have existed in various forms since the late 1400s and have become more pervasive. Social and political inhibitions and constraints to some forms of science and technology provide other barriers.

Thus the notion of pure public goods is seldom realized in the real world. Scientific public goods are, like others, most often impure public goods. They increasingly represent a mixture, in quite varied proportions, of public and private efforts. At one time the common, but not exclusive, pattern was for the government to sponsor more basic research and the private sector the more applied, particularly as knowledge was embodied in a process or product. Yet in recent years an increasing number of firms have delved into more basic areas of research, particularly as they relate to biological sciences.

The latter efforts are not always commercially successful, but there can be a silver lining for the public. Celera Genomics, which could not make a profit based on its efforts to sequence the human genome, recently decided to put its database into the public domain. And in more applied areas, firms have shown a willingness to make their less commercially valuable knowledge available for public use: IBM, for example, recently announced that it would release 500 patents. Similarly, some multinational biotechnology firms have adopted a market segmentation strategy that permits the use of certain food and agricultural technologies in developing countries.

How do we encourage such efforts? Alberts proposed asking scientific journals to make their journals freely available on the Web after a delay of not more than a year, and changing the intellectual property protections that are arranged by public sector research institutions. In what might be considered a model of such a change, the University of California, Berkeley, has a "socially responsible licensing program" designed to cover technologies that promise exceptional benefit to the developing world; licenses are provided on a royalty-free basis.3 Several other universities have similar programs.4 This kind of practice will hopefully become more widely adopted.

In the case of developing nations, efforts have long been under way to provide global, international, and regional public goods through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research The system was initially best known for the development of semidwarf wheat and rice varieties that laid the basis for the Green Revolution and continuing increases in yields, but their research efforts now extend to a wide variety of other crops and activities. Multilateral efforts of a somewhat different nature have also been undertaken to sponsor research on infectious diseases such as malaria.

Some in more scientifically advanced nations are also beginning to recognize the importance of global public goods and the role that they might play in generating them. Two of the key steps to realizing such goals are a more widespread understanding and appreciation of the benefits that science can provide society through the generation of public goods, and a realization that the more widely the goods can be used – either directly or as an input into further research – the greater the social benefits and returns to investment. Such public goods perspectives might well play a more important role in establishing public, and even some private, research priorities and the allocation of scientific resources.

Dana Dalrymple ( is Senior Research Advisor, Office of Environment and Science Policy, US Agency for International Development, Washington, DC. The views expressed here are solely the author's and not those of USAID or any other government organization.

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