Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and fair sharing of the resulting benefits met last month in South Korea to mark the protocol coming into force. Informal hallway discussions showed signs of a welcome new approach to non-commercial research.
An off-shoot of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Nagoya Protocol provides a framework for countries to draft legislation that governs access and benefit-sharing agreements. Twelve years of negotiations were adversarial and pervaded by concerns over biopiracy — the creation of biological products from native species without consent or compensation for the country of origin (see Nature 514, 14–15; 2014).
During the negotiations, some countries with rich biodiversity imposed restrictive access regulations on commercial and non-commercial researchers to reduce the risk of biopiracy. This caused interest to wane among taxonomists, ecologists and other non-commercial scientists who could help nations to discover, document and manage their biodiversity.
Now, several countries have shown a renewed interest in international collaborations for non-commercial research. They are concluding that two decades of restrictions and intensive monitoring of non-commercial research has revealed no biopiracy, only academic papers.
If this trend continues, permits for specimen-collecting and research could become easier to obtain if researchers agree not to use samples for commercial activities without prior consent. This follows the protocol's recommendation to promote non-commercial research that encourages conservation and sustainable use.
Also, formal arrangements for sharing financial benefits could be delayed until a researcher wants to use genetic resources for commercialization (for instance, patents on active ingredients or industrial application of gene sequences). Most non-commercial research projects never reach this stage.
By facilitating access for non-commercial research, provider countries will reap non-monetary benefits such as training, technology transfer and greater understanding of their biodiversity.
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Organisms Diversity & Evolution (2018)