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Sharing knowledge

By Julian Cribb - posted Monday, 15 July 2002

Despite the technological weaponry deployed against it, global terrorism is likely to prosper in the foreseeable future. So too are nation-failure, poverty, the number of refugees and the rate of environmental loss.

These are consequences of a widening gap between a minority of humans with access to modern scientific knowledge, and the vast majority who have no such access.

Knowledge is growing faster today than at any period in history. By one estimate, it doubles every seven years. However, our ability to share human knowledge is not keeping pace at all.


The 20th Century saw the greatest flowering of knowledge in humanity’s million-year story. Yet, at its end there were more poor, more hungry, more sick, deprived, disempowered and angered than ever in history. More knowledge did not bring greater equity - but the opposite.

Knowledge, which was once generally shared among people and nations, is now kept secret, appropriated, or simply not communicated.

For almost 300 years science - or human knowledge - was held to belong to all people. Ordinary citizens could walk in off the street to listen to the Royal Society. In the Napoleonic Wars, when all other exchanges, were banned, scientists freely crossed the Channel to speak at one another’s academies. Knowledge was then thought to be higher than mere national interest.

However, the driving engine of 20th century innovation was war, and the secretive machinery set up to serve warlike purposes still dominates our innovation processes. Knowledge became the closely-guarded asset of the few - a handful of nations, a few corporations, a few societal elites.

There were grave warnings, even half a century ago. Sir Henry Dale, president of the British Royal Society, said in 1946:

I hold it to be our right and our duty to unite in telling the world insistently that if national policies fail to free science in peace from the secrecy it accepted as a necessity of war, they will poison its very spirit …


The founder of Australia’s CSIRO, Sir David Rivett, too, spoke of:

... the threat, now much more than a mere threat, to that free trade in scientific knowledge of all kinds, which has been the glory of these last 300 years that have seen the most rapid advance in human knowledge of Nature since man began his course.

While it has extended privileged lifetimes by decades and brought wealth and ease to one-in-ten, the greatest burgeoning of human knowledge has failed, on the whole, to deliver anything like a fair sharing of the benefits.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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1999 UNESCO World Conference on Science
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