Friday, 7 March 2008

Science and IP in Addis Ababa -- a first-hand account

James Nurton, of Managing IP magazine, has been attending the Science with Africa conference in Addis Ababa this week. Afro-IP is delighted to hear from him first-hand as to what is under discussion. He writes:

"“Education”, “synergy”, “building partnerships”, “network building”, “renewed commitments”: this is how Africa is going to develop science, technology and innovation – at least according to the half a dozen distinguished ministers from around the continent who spoke at the conference on Wednesday this week. They did not address, however, why spending on R&D is less than 1% of GDP in most African countries or why, as Professor Edward Ayensu of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research in Ghana pointed out in a well-received speech, why there had apparently been little progress since 1986, when he chaired a conference that promised much the same thing: “We pay lip-service to science and technology but don’t do anything about it … without science and technology we will never develop.”

A slightly different agenda emerged at the final conference session on Thursday, in a presentation called IdeaSolution, organised by BrainStore (who comes up with these absurd compound names?) which is “built on sound logic and Swiss precision” (their words not mine). In real-time, the 700 or so scientists, administrators and lobbyists attending the conference voted on 20 radical ideas to promote science in the continent, including an Olympic Science Games, an African science TV channel and a tax on luxury goods to fund R&D. The top three ideas, when the votes were counted, were:

* one sponsored science kit for every school (sponsored by who -- and what if they had an agenda?)

* an African Research Yearbook and

* advice on patenting indigenous knowledge (surely this would need some thought about novelty and prior art, not to mention the costs of protection and enforcement?).

This exercise did at least show that delegates are aware that IP has a key role in discussions about science in Africa, and especially one of the main failures so far – turning successful research into commercial innovation. Fittingly, “patents, IPR and technology transfer” was one of the plenary sessions and included five varied presentations – although there was probably little that would be news to readers of this blog. We heard how ARIPO offers protection in 16 countries and has recently offered a cut-price utility model to benefit SMEs, as well as providing training; how issues such as traditional knowledge and fair use are being discussed internationally; how studying patent documents can help businesses plan their strategies and innovate; and how technology transfer – if managed properly – can provide win-win benefits. There was also a mention of the new Pan-African Intellectual Property Organization (PAIPO) although I haven’t found anyone yet who really knows what it is doing or how it relates to other organizations.

Apart from one question, which wasn’t adequately addressed, there was surprisingly little criticism of IP rights or calls for alternative models. This may have been because those attending were IP standard bearers or it may have been because the Q&A session was moderated by Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, a highly distinguished heart surgeon but by his own admission not well-acquainted with the subtleties of IP arguments. He pressed the speakers with questions about publication and the grace period, but they could not give him a uniform answer.

Despite superficial disorganization (a schedule that bore little resemblance to the published programme and which always seemed to be running an hour late) the organizers (UN ECA and African Union) remarkably produced not only a nine-page draft summary of the meeting in two languages, with 24 action points, but also a CD, distributed to all delegates before the conference closed.

Two of the 24 points related to IP: “(1) ARIPO, OAPI and PAIPO and the national IPR bodies should embark on intensive capacity building and awareness raising campaigns in IPR and patent issues; (2) African countries and their respective institutions should enhance their role as custodians of the governance of Africa’s indigenous knowledge and traditional artefacts by enforcing protection laws related to IPRs.” Nothing too revolutionary there. The Nigerian representative at the conference made some astute comments about what the draft summary said about IP, in particular that TRIPs was not mentioned, that protection in many countries is weak rather than strong and that patents should be seen as a separate issue from traditional knowledge.

This was a diverse conference, covering everything from IT to climate change, malaria drugs to transport. Perhaps too diverse. But the message was clear, and in the light of international focus on and investment in Africa, not to mention the Gates Foundation’s millions, it is well-timed: if Africa is to develop and address its health and environmental challenges, science should play a part. To do so, research needs to be commercialized, and as many speakers pointed out, that requires effective IP protection as well as venture funding and basic infrastructure. The most interesting presentation I heard was by Professor Peter Singer, who has led a study in three countries which suggests that research and commercialization are proceeding on “parallel tracks” in his words, both progressing but never meeting. That, he argued, needs to change (and he has some interesting proposals on how it can do so). I chatted to many of the delegates here, but did not meet a single African businessman/woman (among multinationals, I met one representative of big pharma; Microsoft was a sleeping sponsor; and someone from Nokia gave an interesting talk). When a conference like this attracts people from the private sector (whether factory owners, shopkeepers, pharmacists, grocers or even farmers) who want to use science to grow, then perhaps we will see some progress".

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