Science in Society Archive

Rice is Life series: 5

Has Science Compromised Science?

Once again, the journal Science has allowed a private company to publish a scientific paper in its pages while withholding data from public view for commercial reasons. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Just as Celera got away with denying public access to its human genome data, Syngenta too, is refusing to deposit its rice sequence data in the public database GenBank. Instead, Syngenta is making the data available through its own website (tmri.org) or on a CD-ROM.

According to Science's own report, Scientists can use the raw sequence without strings attached for research, and Syngenta will permit researchers to publish paper and "have Syngenta deposit a gene's worth of DNA data in GenBank without negotiation." Larger amounts will require a specific agreement. The company seeks no "reach through" intellectual property rights, but scientists doing commercial work must negotiate their own data-access agreements. The raw data include only minimal notes, such as labels on DNA likely to be "nonrice in origin", and is of no use to most researchers.

According to a news report in Nature, access to Syngenta draft sequence is very restrictive. Up to 15 000 bases at a time, and no more than 100 000 bases per week. If more is required, then a statement has to be signed that no commercial use is to be made of the sequence.

Science's deal with Syngenta is similar to that struck with Celera for the human genome sequence the journal published last year. Celera gives noncommercial researchers free access to raw DNA sequence but charges a fee for access to its annotated gene database. It had sparked off a furore among the scientific community. The journal had compromised the ideals of open science by allowing that precedent.

This time around, a score of leading researchers, including Micheal Ashburner of Cambridge University UK, David Botstein of Stanford University, circulated a letter stating that failure to deposit the data in GenBank constituted a "very serious threat" to genomes research. The value of GenBank is that diverse sequences from bacteria and worm to rice and human, are all accessible in one database, making it possible to carry out studies on evolutionary relationships and thorough searches for homology of gene sequences.

Science's editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, defended his decision, stating that, "the public benefit of bringing this importance science out of trade secret status greatly outweighs the cost of granting the exception". Many scientists would disagree.

Reaction from the scientific community has been relatively muted. Science's reporter thinks that it is because Syngenta has promised to work closely with public funded groups to produce more complete draft, and pointed out that Monsanto's draft of japonica, completed two years ago but unpublished, has also been made available to publicly funded groups, with the result that 30% of the data released to GenBank has originated from the company. So, much of Syngenta sequence is likely to end up in GenBank over the next "12 to 18 months" mixed with data from public groups, says Steven Briggs, head of Syngenta's Torrey Mesa Research Institute in San Diego, California.

All the signs are that the scientific establishment is getting far too cosy with the industry, which does not reassure the rest of us.

One positive reason for the muted response from the scientific community may be that, thanks to Yang and the Beijing Genomics Institute, (see "Breaching the corporate monopoly", this series), the rice genome draft of indica has been deposited in the GenBank. This alone might have persuaded both Monsanto and Syngenta to make their sequences more available.

The problem is not just access to scientific information, it is how the information could be used for public good when the interests of the scientists and corporations are too closely tied up.

Source: "A deal for the rice genome" by Eliot Marshall, Science 2002, 296, 34.

Article first published 20/04/02



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