Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Sept12/02)
Dear friends and colleagues,
We are pleased to share with you a new research briefing paper on what could be a worrying shift in the policy of the Smithsonian Institution, the quasi-governmental operator of museums and research institutes based in Washington, DC.
Edward Hammond, the author of the paper alerts us to the fact that the Smithsonian has a "bold, broad, and bogus patent claim over biological control of ant colonies. Based on its own research in Panama, and research by others, the Smithsonian claims ownership over use of parasitic fungi as biological control agents for leafcutter ant species found in tropical and warm temperate climates of the Americas." It lodged a patent application at the US Patent and Trademark Office on 28 September 2011. Its international (Patent Cooperation Treaty administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization) homologue was published as WO2012050857 on 19 April 2012.
Whether or not the Smithsonian ultimately obtains a granted patent over fungal biocontrol of leafcutter ants, the bigger question is why the Smithsonian filed this patent application at all, and what it means for the Institutionís biological research partners in Panama and elsewhere in the world.
The paper notes that historically, the Smithsonian has not been an aggressive patent applicant. The Institution has generally eschewed commercially oriented science in favor of more ďpureĒ documentary pursuits, such as taxonomy and characterization of ecosystems. This tradition has likely aided the Institutionís researchers in obtaining access to genetic resources, because the Smithsonian has not often been associated with profiteering or allegations of biopiracy.
However, our research shows that this leafcutter ant patent application may signal a notable change in the Institutionís policies with significant implications. If the Smithsonian is entering the business of patents in the biological sciences, then its researchers must now be placed together with those of companies and commercially oriented universities when it comes to access to genetic resources. Access by the Smithsonian will need to be conditioned on strong benefit sharing provisions, as would naturally be applied to the private sector, because the Institutionís patent activity is a clear indication that it has adopted commercial goals.
The paper also reveals that the Smithsonian is playing a key role in the Global Environmental Facilityís first project to implement the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing with the Panamanian government - Project documentation at URL: http://tinyurl.com/cwytgxf (accessed 17 August 2012). The fact that the Institution may be refocusing on commercially-oriented, patent research, and that it is capable of lodging such an abusive patent application on the basis of its research in Panama, raise questions as to if the Institution should have a place in the GEF project at all. Not only is the Smithsonian a quasi-governmental body of a non-Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (the United States), it has also now demonstrated itself to be fully capable of biopiracy, concludes the paper.