Disagreements, however, have arisen regarding how to treat data derived from genetic resources, known as digital sequence information (DSI).
A culture of data sharing
Scientists have a long and successful history of sharing DSI openly, even before the days of the internet. This culture of sharing is central to biodiversity research and has driven technological advances in fields as diverse as medicine, food security, and green energy production. Online databases such as those managed by EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) contain DSI for many hundreds of thousands of organisms and grow each day. These widely-used resources support scientific reproducibility, transparency, and advancement. DSI sharing, for example, was crucial to the rapid development of SARS-CoV-2 tests and vaccines.
In a paper published in Nature Communications, 41 researchers from 17 countries explain why a policy solution on DSI is urgently needed and propose a mechanism that would support biodiversity conservation while also better sharing the benefits of DSI research.
Multilateral policy mechanism
“The biodiversity of our planet is in real danger,” said Guy Cochrane, Team Leader at EMBL-EBI. “To protect biodiversity, we need to first understand it and this can only be achieved if we work together across national borders. Open data is absolutely essential for biodiversity research and conservation, so the world needs a policy solution that does not limit the flow of data between countries.”
The authors suggest a policy mechanism that would create a positive feedback loop to encourage countries to generate and share digital sequence information on their biodiversity, while distributing benefits from its use equitably. The authors argue that such a policy mechanism must be multilateral, which means that nations around the world must cooperate and agree on common rules. The paper also calls on policymakers to engage with researchers in their countries who depend on access to DSI, so that any policy solution will not hinder crucial biodiversity research.
Open access and fair benefit sharing
“Biodiversity is a natural reservoir on which depends our food and health security and a framework of well-being,” said Halima Benbouza, Director at the National Council of Scientific Research and Technologies in Algeria. “Yet, it is threatened and to conserve it and stop losing it, open access to data for life scientists, coupled to fair and equitable benefit sharing of the advantages of its utilisation, should be the essence of a global policy solution.”