Special issue on the microbial commons

The latest issue of the International Journal of the Commons contains a special collection of articles on the microbial commons, edited by Tom Dedeurwaerdere of the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium.

From the introduction: “vast amounts of plant and animal genetic material are collected and microorganisms isolated throughout the world from various habitats and sources, and exchanged in collaborative research networks for the improvement of global food security, public health and climate change mitigation” but “the relatively frictionless exchange of biological materials within a global commons, which prevailed during the early days of modern life sciences, now seems to be reversed. More and more biological materials are enclosed behind national and privatized fences, or only accessible under very restrictive license conditions”.

On the other hand, “due to the dual nature of genetic resources (as a biophysical resource used in current applications and as a living and evolving informational resource which provides basic input for the development of future applications and uses) the line between the market and non-market value of genetic resources is very difficult to draw.”

The special issue is devoted to investigating a new or stronger role of governance to design principles for building the microbial commons. The main argument of this collection of articles mainly coming from international law scholars is that commons governance is based on a variety of governance modes. Namely, “self-governance in global science communities, participatory modes of governance in international non-profit organizations, and conventional intergovernmental negotiation forums.”

In fact, specific governance problems are the biophysical characteristics of the resources: “goods that are more efficiently provided through non-market means (such as open-source collaborations and public provision). Genetic resources are complex goods with both a biophysical and an informational component.” But apart from the long tradition of international cooperation amongst culture collections, the impact of free riding is threat for the long-term sustainability of the commons. That is why the global community of scientits working on microbes needs formal intergovernmental arrangements.

But another important point is the role of self-governance and “the need to go beyond the dissociation between users and producers of knowledge within the commons.” The need to involve the user communities has led to a set of interesting institutional innovations, such as “public genome databases, open source bioinformatics software, and viral licensing by culture collections through so-called legitimate exchange.” And these institutional innovations were not established through governmental or intergovernmental legal or policy arrangements. They were the result of self-governance by the science and microbial culture-collection communities.” We need a legal infrastructure for the commons, as well as a culture rooted in sharing and openess practices.

Dedeurwaerdere concludes that “a mutually supportive relationship between various governance activities is an important feature of a successful genetic resource commons. This can be thought of as an organization with multiple layers of nested enterprises, which has been recognized as an important characteristic of large-scale and robust common pool resource systems”.

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