Genome man’s land for everyone

Want to see the "big society" at work? Look at science. Doing science as an individual can be a terrifying experience of gladiatorial conflict where everyone else's job is to find the flaw in your idea or discovery. On a global scale, however, science is ultimately about co-operation.

The practice of science is a form of communism: making knowledge a commonly held resource rather than the preserve of the wealthy or the powerful. And when Karl Marx declared "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", he could have been talking about how that gets done - scientists share resources between brains and share knowledge down the generations. In science, property is theft; almost the only thing a scientist gets to own is that they were first to a discovery.

On 15 February, it was the tenth anniversary of the public availability of the human genome sequence. This was a typical big-society effort. Much of the information was gained through a co-operative effort seeded by a voluntary donation of DNA - from a certain Craig Venter.

When that detail came out in 2002, many people saw it as further proof of Venter's megalomania. It was, however, more a case of practicality and ethics. Time was pressing, but no one should do this, Venter felt, without being fully inducted into the implications and consequences. He knew more than anyone how to interpret an adverse genetic diagnosis.

Thus, eventually, Venter gave his genome away. In 2005, researchers gratefully received huge voluntary donations of sequenced genomes from his firm, Celera Genomics.

The culture of sharing resources and discoveries is as old as experimental science. When the Royal Society was established in 1660, Londoners could watch as scientists shared time on a huge, wheeled wooden rig that focused sunlight through vast glass lenses to heat substances to otherwise unreachable temperatures.

This ethos is no respecter of national boundaries. A recent meeting in Beijing took the first steps towards giving Chinese astronomers time on some of the west's best telescopes. One reason this is likely to go ahead is the mutual benefit: China is building a range of telescopes that western researchers will be glad to play with.

Carry on, Nurse

Such full, open and mutually beneficial access to knowledge, and to the tools which help the process along, has created the modern world. Ironically, having failed to recognise that the greatness of Britain was built on the scientific version of the big society, the government is now trying its damnedest to make scientists fiercely protective of their property.

Paul Nurse, the new president of the Royal Society, recently told the House of Commons science and technology select committee that ministers' present penchant for making scientists seek patents on their discoveries is hopelessly misguided. Patents are rarely a cash cow, he said, and scientific innovation brings the most benefit when scientists are free to share and develop each other's ideas.

So, perhaps David Cameron should make his vision a reality by persuading Nurse that his first move as the society's president should be to drop "royal" for "big". After all, how loyal to the monarch can these communists be?

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Toppling the tyrants