An initiative is being established this week with a US$1-million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, to make research tools more readily available to biologists who could not otherwise afford them.

The Biological Innovation for Open Society (BIOS) initiative will seek to make information and technologies such as plant-breeding tools freely available. It will also provide scientists with better information about what they can access and, its founders hope, establish an international community of interested researchers.

Richard Jefferson is the initiative's leader and chairman of the Center for the Application for Molecular Biology to International Agriculture (CAMBIA), which is a non-profit research institute based in Canberra, Australia. He says BIOS could spur an “open source movement” in biotechnology, analogous to the one that has developed in the computer software industry.

Plant scientists in poor countries often complain that they are shut off from recent advances in agricultural biotechnology because they cannot afford licensing fees.

The initiative's first activities will be to gather a portfolio of research tools that can be used for free and to construct an easy-to-use database of patent information. It will also provide templates of licensing agreements for scientists who want to make their technologies freely available. In turn, users will be obliged to freely release innovations based on these techniques.

Jefferson says that BIOS will encompass all forms of biological innovations, including agricultural and animal-breeding tools, genetic resources, medical treatments and environmental remedies. Its running costs will be covered by funds from sponsors and what he terms “non-compulsory” subscription fees paid by licensees.

Its initial portfolio of research tools will include a new method, developed by CAMBIA, for transferring genes into plants using modified bacterial species. Jefferson hopes to publish the technique shortly and says it will side-step patents held by biotech firm Monsanto on Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a bacterium currently used for this purpose. “It's a poster child for the initiative,” says Jefferson of the new method.

Much of the initial, one-year Rockefeller grant is being spent on hiring patent and computer specialists to extend CAMBIA's patent database and draw up the licensing templates. IBM is also contributing computer hardware and software in order to help get the initiative off the ground.

Some universities and companies already provide free licences for their technologies to researchers in poor countries. But Jefferson says these efforts are not sufficient to provide the “cooperative environment” that BIOS is setting out to build.

The success of the initiative will require the kind of community groundswell that buoys the open-source software movement, says Robert Zeigler of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a network of agricultural laboratories.

It will also require a cultural shift at universities, says Yochai Benkler, an information-law specialist at Yale University. “Many universities operate on the assumption that the role of their licensing policies is to maximize revenue,” he says.

Although BIOS is expecting some resistance from biotechnology companies, a few of the larger companies have actually expressed support for it. “We have had discussions with BIOS and these will continue,” says Ganesh Kishore, vice-president of technology at DuPont in St Louis, Missouri. “I don't view BIOS as a threat: it will be complementary. We need many innovations to build all the products that we want to build.”