Science, Society, Sustainability
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ISIS Report 21/12/05

Liberating Knowledge

Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society, PO Box 32097, London NW1 0XR, UK

Manuscript prepared for Centre Europe Tiers Monde (CETIM)*

A fully referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members' website. Details here.


The western knowledge that dominates the world today is in crisis across all disciplines, with science being the worst afflicted. Reliable knowledge is being drowned out by relentless propaganda and a concerted disinformation campaign aimed at promoting the commercial products of knowledge, while critical information on the dangers involved is summarily dismissed and suppressed. Worst of all, knowledge is being privatised and contained as the “intellectual property” of corporations, giving corporations unprecedented control, not just over knowledge of nature, but over life and the necessities of life. 

Liberating knowledge is the most urgent task facing humanity, without which there can be no reliable knowledge freely accessible to all that’s absolutely required for effective action.

*To appear in Health by and for the People: Reappropriating Health for All after 25 Years of Neoliberal Obstruction. Enquiries to: CETIM, 6 rue JC AMAT, 1201 Geneva, Switzerland, Tel: 0041 22 731 59 63.

Why liberate knowledge?

The western knowledge that dominates the world today is in crisis across all disciplines, with science being the worst afflicted. I first became aware of that soon after I was moved to join the genetic engineering debate, partly because I was inspired by people like Martin Khor of the Third World Network and Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science and Ecology in India among others, who have been unstinting and untiring in their brilliant efforts to save the world. So I thought I could contribute something useful too, as a scientist, for the scientific information available to our policy-makers and to the public was so lacking in quality.

I take science very seriously both as a scientist and especially as a member of the general public. We need good, reliable knowledge that can protect and sustain the planet and all its inhabitants; and that’s good science by another name. Equally important, without critical scientific information, the public cannot participate in making decisions that may put them in danger, destroy their most deeply held moral codes, or profoundly change their lives in other ways; and there will be no way to draw on the collective wisdom and inventiveness of the human species to save the world.

But I soon learned how difficult it was to access and publicize reliable knowledge. It was being drowned out by relentless propaganda and a concerted disinformation campaign aimed at promoting the commercial products of knowledge, while critical information on the dangers involved was summarily dismissed and ruthlessly suppressed. Worst of all, knowledge was being privatised and contained as the “intellectual property” of corporations, giving corporations unprecedented control, not just over knowledge of nature, but over life and the necessities of life. 

Liberating knowledge is the most urgent task facing humanity, without which there can be no reliable knowledge freely accessible to all that’s absolutely required for effective action.

Enclosure of the intellectual commons

Living processes, genes and organisms are nature’s inventions, and could belong to no one. Granting patents on them was a new departure in the history of protecting human inventions; as based on the previously existing patenting laws, it would have required the actual creation of an organism. Organisms are after all responsible for the living processes that enable us to reproduce, provide us with food, shelter and all the other necessities of life; without the organism, a gene – a bit of DNA – can do none of those things.

Some critics say these “patents on life” are new because they are awarded for discoveries or knowledge, but that’s not even true [1]. In far too many cases, patents are granted for genes or DNA sequences on which there is practically no knowledge; while many others are based on associations with specific traits or diseases, however weak, that are said to be useful for dubious “diagnostic purposes”.  

In August 2005, biotech giant Syngenta revealed that it has filed 15 global patents on nearly 30 000 gene sequences from rice (out of a total of 37 544), which would grant it monopolistic rights not only over rice, but over other major crops plants with similar gene sequences such as wheat, maize, sorghum, rye, soybean, as well as banana, fruits and vegetables [2]. “This would mean, in practice, that the company would be able to determine price, access, research and re-use of seeds in future [3].”

I had warned of rampant gene patenting and its consequences when the rice genome sequence was first announced in 2002 [4] (“Rice genome in corporate hands”, SiS 15), but had underestimated the scale and the scope of the patents that Syngenta is claiming. It would be a violation of basic human rights to grant those patents; it would be legitimising the theft of genetic resources that provide food and livelihood for billions of the poorest people in the world.

The patenting of human genes had begun much earlier. The human genome had been handed over to private ownership by our governments in the industrialised countries through the publicly-funded human genome project [5]. By now, more than 4 000 human genes – 20 percent of the total - have been patented in the United States, mainly by private companies or universities [6] seeking to cash in on gene tests promoted in the popular and not so popular media. Such gene tests may help diagnose diseases in patients that have already fallen ill; but they are generally known to give poor prediction on an individual’s future health status even for so-called single gene diseases such as cystic fibrosis [5, 7]. Applying them to healthy individuals could cause unnecessary anxiety, and end up undermining their prospects for health insurance and employment, as insurance companies, if not employers, are set to demand a disclosure of gene test results. Where gene sequences are useful, as in identifying strains of bacterial or viral pathogens, proprietary rights through patenting have impeded diagnosis and treatment.

The enclosure of knowledge through “intellectual property rights” is bad for science and for citizens in the industrialised world; it is disastrous for developing countries. Yet, it is being imposed on developing countries against their will, contrary to their social values and economic interest and in violation of basic human rights. This is done under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual property Rights (TRIPS) in the World Trade Organization (WTO).  To add insult on injury, indigenous knowledge systems all over the world are denigrated and suppressed in favour of western science, at the same time that they are expropriated in flagrant acts of biopiracy [8]. A sequence of a gene that can be obtained within hours in the laboratory is considered sufficient for claiming intellectual property right over plant resources that local communities have researched, developed and used for millennia.

The first act of liberating knowledge is put an end to patents on life and other enclosures of the intellectual commons that compromise people’s access to the necessities of life, including health and affordable medicine, especially indigenous medicine in serious diseases such as AIDS [9]. Biopiracy and commercial exploitation of indigenous medicinal plants can lead to price increases overnight that put essential and widely available medicines beyond people’s reach.

Universities and science for rent

As symptomatic of the crisis of knowledge, all the traditional accepted standards of good science are being compromised and eroded as corporations take over academia and our government [10, 11]. In the United States, allegations of faked scientific findings increased 50 percent between 2003 and 2004 [12]; the federal Office of Research Integrity received 274 allegations of scientific fraud in 2004, but was able to complete only 23 investigations on account of its limited budget.

“The basic role of the university in a democratic society is at risk. Alone among social institutions, the university’s mission is the unqualified pursuit and public dissemination of truth and knowledge. The university serves the broad public interest to the extent it treasures informed analysis, critical inquiry and uncompromising standards of intellectual integrity.” James L. Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers wrote in 2001 [13]. 

It was the general cutback in public funding that drove universities to seek support from corporations. Corporate funding and influence has since infiltrated into every discipline. “Corporate donations to universities are often made in utmost secrecy,” Turk wrote, “Canada’s largest and most richly endowed university, the University of Toronto, signed secret deals in 1997 with the Joseph Rotman Foundation ($15 million for the Faculty of Management Studies), CEO Peter Munk of Barrick Gold and Horsham corporations ($6.4 million for the Centre for International Studies) and Nortel ($8 million for the Nortel Institute for Telecommunications). The deals allow the corporations unprecedented influence over the academic direction of University of Toronto programmes.”

Today, “wealth creation” and “the knowledge economy” resound in the halls of higher learning and in the speeches of politicians, including the government’s chief scientific adviser Prof. Sir David King [14], who presented a glowing view of British science, and even attributed its success to the cutback in public spending in the 1980s; likening it to the necessary “pruning” that improves the growth of plants.

The same clichés of “competitiveness of enterprise”, “knowledge society” and “knowledge exploitation for economic growth” are guiding principles of the “Lisbon Agenda” that’s to be enacted in Europe’s next science funding programme, Framework 7 [15].

Suppression and victimisation of honest scientists

Worst of all, suppression and misrepresentation are the order of the day [16]. Scientists who try to tell the truth that’s uncomfortable for industry and wealth creation are victimised by their own universities and the scientific establishment. The case of Dr. Arpad Pusztai in the UK is well known. He was a highly respected member of the scientific establishment, and a supporter of genetic modification until 1998, when his research turned up disturbing indications on the inherent health hazards of genetically modified  (GM) food and feed [16, 17]. His job was terminated overnight, the Royal Society hastily set up a committee to discredit him in his absence; and attempts to defame and vilify him continue to this day.

Prof. Ignacio Chapela first became a public figure, also in 1998. He was one of the few academics to oppose the takeover of his department in the University of California at Berkeley by Novartis Corporation. In 2001, he and his graduate student reported that Mexican landraces had been contaminated by transgenic maize in a prominent scientific journal; and were hit by an immediate barrage of vehement criticisms and attack from scientists friendly to the industry. When Chapela’s tenure came up for review, it was delayed, and then denied. Chapela won his case after battling the university administration for four years, and only after he initiated a lawsuit against the university. He dropped the lawsuit recently, but said he would not abandon his efforts to hold the university accountable [18]: “I look forward to continue challenging, in the best forums that I can find, what I believe is a corrupt and illegitimate takeover of the public university away from its public mandate.”

In September 2005, environment professor Stephane McLachlan and his Ph. D. student Ian Mauro at the University of Manitoba in Canada accused the university of blocking the release of their video exploring the risks of GM crops while courting funds from biotech companies. The video, based on interviews with Prairie farmers about their experiences with GM canola, was completed in 2002 as a full-length documentary with help from an independent Winnipeg filmmaker, Jim Sanders. But it has never been screened because the university and the researchers, who share the copyright have been unable to negotiate an agreement on its release [19]. James Turk compared the case to the University of Toronto’s failure to support Dr. Nancy Olivieri when the drug company Apotex tried to prevent her from going public with her concerns about one of their drugs. The University of Toronto was also negotiating a huge donation from the company. 

Fred Kirschenmann was director of the Leopold Center in Iowa State University for the past five years, until he was suddenly and involuntarily made “distinguished fellow”.  His sins? He argued once too often that there is an urgent need for “a more intelligent, diversified farming system.” Genetic modification, he said, is “simply another tool to make the monoculture work a little longer” in the face of the pests and diseases that monocultures encourage. In other words, he was simply carrying out what an academic is mandated to do, which made him persona non grata.

For his parting shot, Kirschenmann said [20] Iowa State’s College of Agriculture “draws agribusiness cash the way a penned-up pig wallowing in its own waste draws flies.”

I was strongly encouraged to retire early and hounded out of my university department in 2000 [11]. My sins? I have been providing critical information on the risks of genetic modification to the public and policy-makers worldwide since 1994, all of which incidentally, have been amply confirmed. But the denial and disinformation continue.

Scientists for rent

What we are up against is a powerful pro-GM lobby that has infiltrated every level of civil society from international aid agencies to governments and academia; I have crossed paths with it all too often [21, 22].

Monsanto and other biotech corporations have been funding university scientists to do their research cheaply, to be sure; but also to do propaganda, to ‘debate’ with scientists like me, to defame us, and spread falsehoods; and like the transnational corporations, the pro-GM lobby operates worldwide.

Recently in Lusaka, I came up against a scientist from the University of Zambia leading an aggressive disinformation campaign against his country’s rejection of GM crops and GM food aid. To make his case, he exploited the most horrendous image of an emaciated African child “crawling towards food aid with a vulture at its back”. The child was saved; we were told, but the journalist who took the picture committed suicide. Following him, a scientist from Kenya used the same image and told the exact same story. The story turned out to be complete fabrication [23]. The photograph was taken in Sudan in 1992 long before GM crops and GM food aid became an issue. No one knew if the child was saved. The photographer made no attempt to help her, and was criticised for it; he committed suicide because he ran out of money.

Another science is possible

Our struggle to liberate knowledge is not limited to genetic engineering. Hot on the heels of genetic engineering is nanotechnology, which has spawned a new discipline of nanotoxicity years after research and commercialisation has raced ahead [24]. But as usual, the research budget for toxicity is extremely limited compared with that for product development for commercial exploitation. Also on offer are implants for electronic surveillance and mind control [25], not to mention a host of “non-lethal” and “crowd control” electronic devices that may be sophisticated, overt and covert torture equipment [26, 27].

Technology is running out of control; it is working against the public good and against nature, not just because it has been completely co-opted by “wealth creation”, or that science is in bed with big business; but most of all because western science is rooted in seeing nature as hostile machine, separate from us, to be disassembled, to be tamed and tortured, to satisfy our every conceivable need, however egregious or banal [8]. It is ultimately this mistaken view of nature that has brought our planet to the brink of a mass extinction that will include our own species.

We desperately need another science that sees nature as an organic whole, which includes the scientist. In the words of quantum physics, the observer and observed - the knower and the known - are mutually entangled, and each act of knowing irreversibly alters both. That is ultimately why we must know responsibly, sensitively and without violence. I have articulated this radically holistic science of the organism in my book The Rainbow and the Worm [28], where I also show how it reconnects western science to traditional knowledge systems worldwide [29], transforming the basis of knowledge and the meaning of life itself.

Spreading knowledge

A concrete way to breach the enclosure of the intellectual commons is to engage in spreading knowledge as widely as possible. Knowledge that’s not free to circulate cannot grow and will eventually die.

That’s why I co-founded the Institute of Science in Society in 1999 (see Box 1).

Box 1

The Institute of Science in Society


· To promote social and policy changes towards a sustainable, equitable world        

· To reclaim science for the public good

· To promote a contemporary, holistic science of the organism and sustainable systems

Working through

1. Lively reports posted on website (more than 50 000 hits a day in busy months) and circulated to an e-mail list (about 3 000) that includes all sectors of civil society worldwide, from small farmers in India to policy-makers in the United Nations

2. An attractively illustrated quarterly magazine Science in Society (print-run 1 500 plus online subscription)

3. Major campaigns and initiatives (see below)

4. In-depth reports and books, such as Unravelling AIDS (2005), The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World (2003, 2004) and Living with the Fluid Genome (2003)

5. Public-speaking and media-appearances in the UK and abroad

6. Submissions to national and international committees

Campaigns and initiatives include

1. World Scientists Open Letter, February 1999, calling for a moratorium on genetically modified (GM) organisms, ban on patents on life, and support for sustainable agriculture; now signed by 820 scientists from 84 countries

2. Independent Science Panel (ISP) (, May 2003. Its report (The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World) calling for a ban on GM crops and a comprehensive shift to sustainable agriculture was presented in the UK- and European Parliament, circulated worldwide, and translated into 6 or more languages since.

3. Sustainable World Initiative, April 2005, A first international conference was held 14/15 July 2005 in UK Parliament, to be followed by a weekend workshop 21-22 January 2006, towards building an innovative demonstration farm that turns agricultural wastes into biogas energy and rich fertilizer while saving substantially on greenhouse gas emissions. We aim to produce a definitive report on sustainable food systems under a new economic model, together with the socio-economic, political and structural changes needed for implementation.

We have created a website that probably contains the largest number of accessible scientific reports and analyses across the disciplines, and is growing all the time.

We e-mail up-to-date reports to thousands, many of our subscribers are list servers. Our readers range from small farmers in India to policy-makers in the United Nations. We also publish a quarterly magazine to update on scientific findings that have large implications for society and public policies.

With the start of our ISIS website in 1999, we initiated the World Scientists Statement and Open Letter, calling for a moratorium on environmental releases of GMOs, a ban on patents on life, and support for non-GM sustainable agriculture. To-date, more than 820 scientists from 84 countries have signed the letter.

Convention on knowledge

To raise the profile of knowledge and the importance of liberating knowledge, we produced a discussion paper, Towards a Convention on Knowledge in 2001 [30]. It was adopted by Scientists for Global Responsibility with a membership of 600; the International Network of Engineers and Scientists, which includes a union with 1.5 million members; the Third World Network; and Tebtebba, a major network of indigenous peoples. We launched this paper at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, 2002, at a pre-scheduled event organised by UNESCO and Tebtebba Foundation, “Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development”.

A summary of what the Convention involves is given in Box 2. It is not intended as a legal document, but purely to express a commitment of civil society to develop and use knowledge responsibly and for the good of all.

Box 2

Convention on Knowledge (2002)

· No knowledge should be developed and used for destructive, oppressive or aggressive military ends

· Keep knowledge in the public domain, open and accessible to all

· Promote knowledge in inclusive and pluralistic forms, especially indigenous knowledge

· Promote knowledge for sustainability

· Promote knowledge that serves public good, independent of commercial interests or government control

· Promote knowledge that makes the world equitable and life-enhancing for all in every respect

The final section of our paper contains suggestions on how to move forward, the most important of which is to establish a new working partnership between the scientists and their local communities. Scientists should work much more closely, if not directly, with local communities, so that people’s concerns and aspirations can help shape the research. More importantly, scientists could benefit greatly from local knowledge. We want top priority to be given to revitalising and protecting traditional agricultural and healthcare systems from biopiracy and globalisation, and to developing sciences and technologies appropriate for the community.

We recognise that not all research could be done with or within local communities. But even for research that is largely laboratory-based, the scientists should maintain close touch with the community of which they are part, and be responsive and sensitive to people’s concerns.

We set out some suggestions on science and technologies that should be supported, and the criteria of appropriate technologies. We also identified technologies that should not be supported, or should be subject to international peaceful control.

Independent scientists of the world unite

To counteract the suppression of scientists and scientific evidence and to contribute to the global debate over GM crops, ISIS organised a major event in London 10 May 2003, in which twenty-four scientists from seven countries launched themselves as the Independent Science Panel (ISP) on GM, to ensure that all the scientific evidence will be heard, so people can make the right choice for the future of food and agriculture.

Two hundred people from all over Britain attended the ISP launch, including the then Environment Minister, Michael Meacher. Meacher lost his jobs several weeks later.

The ISP issued a statement (see Box 3), based on the Convention on Knowledge.

Box 3

Statement of the Independent Science Panel

The Independent Science Panel (ISP) is an international panel of scientists from many disciplines committed to:

1. Promoting science for the public good, independent of commercial and other special interests, or of government control

2. Maintaining the highest standards of integrity and impartiality in science       

3. Developing sciences that can help make the world sustainable, equitable, peaceful and life-enhancing for all its inhabitants

The ISP website ( was created on 15 June 2003, coinciding with the web publication of the ISP Report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World. By 3 July 12 000 people downloaded the Report in the United States alone.

The Report is the most complete dossier of evidence on the problems and hazards of GM crops as well as the many health, environmental and social benefits of all forms of sustainable agriculture. Based on this evidence, the ISP has called for a ban on environmental releases of GM crops and the comprehensive shift to all forms of non-GM sustainable agriculture.

The Report has been republished in the United States the following year, and has now been translated into Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, German and Dutch; Indonesian and Italian translations are on the way. It was presented in three successful briefings to government and inter-governmental agencies in 2004, receiving widespread coverage in the popular media.

The ISP has written many letters to government and intergovernment agencies to support local campaigning groups.

We have submitted a strong comment to the European Commission, calling on it to support independent science in its next round of science funding (Framework 7), and to ensure maximum transparency and democratic input in deciding funding and research priorities. Basically, we want Europe to establish broad funding criteria that put public interest ahead of wealth creation, and to include ethical and safety considerations before the research is funded. We are demanding a redistribution of the research budget away from industry and technology-driven areas like genomics and information technologies towards sustainable agriculture, ecology and energy use in sustainable systems and holistic health. In particular, we want to see top priority given to scientists working with local communities to revitalize and protect traditional agricultural and healthcare systems.

At the European Parliament briefing in October 2004, ISP delivered its strongest message: invest in sustainable agriculture right now, as there is no other way to really feed the world under global warming.

As a follow-up on the ISP report, we have launched a Sustainable World initiative to make our food production system sustainable, to ameliorate climate change and guarantee food security for all. This seems like a very tall order. We had our first international meeting for the Sustainable World, and there is no doubt that we have all the means at our disposal to do it; maybe all we need is a little dose of idealism and quixotic daring.


I owe a lot to many people in my quest to liberating knowledge, some of whom I shall mention here.

My colleagues in ISIS past and present - especially Julian Haffegee, Sam Burcher, Andy Watton, Lim Li Ching and Rhea Gala - without whose ingenuity and dedication, liberating knowledge would have been impossible.

Prof. Joe Cummins, a great friend and ally, who has stalwartly sustained ISIS by a prolific stream of timely exposés, and has kept us thoroughly informed and up-to-date on science matters.

Martin Khor and other colleagues of the Third World Network, who got me into all this in the first place, and supported ISIS through thick and thin.

Edward Goldsmith, great friend, mentor and supporter of ISIS, who is responsible for much of my passion for ‘saving the world’.

Last but not least, Peter Saunders, my fellow traveller and constant reference point for all the important things of life.

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