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The topic itself is, of course, quite ambitious. Moreover, this may be the first attempt to take it on in a fairly comprehensive way. Hence I will only attempt to provide an introduction. Three main topics will be taken up, in varying proportion: (1) principal concepts, (2) provision and use, and (3) implementation. The focus will be on scientific knowledge at the international level, particularly with respect to developing countries. My perspective is that of an agricultural economist and sometime historian. My approach involves a rather wide-ranging review of literature blended with long personal experience in international agricultural research. Others might well follow quite different routes and illustrate different dimensions. I encourage them to do so.


In examining scientific knowledge as a global public good, I will start by building on several venerable concepts and components. Some of them have been partially woven together before; others have not. Each has its own history and is important to understanding the whole. And they need to be combined with some contemporary economic perspectives.

Historical Perspectives

The starting point is public goods, which were long considered, at most, at the national level and for public institutions and services. Hence there is a need to expand the definition in several directions: to knowledge as a global public good, to global scientific knowledge, and to recognition of the role played by IPRs.

Knowledge as a Public Good

Adam Smith laid the basis for the concept of public goods in The Wealth of Nations in 1776 when he stated:

The third and last duty of the sovereign is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and for which it cannot be expected that an individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.

The development of more sophisticated theories of public goods began in the last quarter of the 19th century (Machlup, 1984, p. 128). Recent use of the term by economists is usually traced back to two short articles by Paul Samuelson in the mid-1950s (1954, 1955). It became a central concept in public finance, in part due to the writings of Musgrave and Buchanan (Machlup, 1984, pp. 128-129; Olson, 1971; Buchanan, 1968). Public goods, as they have generally come to be known, have two distinct characteristics: (1) they are freely available to all and (2) they are not diminished by use. These properties are often expressed by economists, as we shall see later, in terms of non-excludability and non-rivalry.

In the context of scientific knowledge, a “good” is viewed here, following some dictionary variants, as having or generating two key qualities: (1) it is tangible in the sense that it is capable of being treated as a fact, or understood and realized; and (2) it has intrinsic value in terms of relating to the fundamental nature of a thing. It is neutral with respect to the “good” effect on society, although that also is usually presumed to be good (to be discussed later), and excludes money.

The public goods characteristic of ideas and knowledge has long been noted, first by St. Augustine, sometime between 391 and 426 (Wills, 1999), and then by Thomas Jefferson, in 1813 in a frequently cited letter on patents (1984). 3 Their views were carried further by Powell in 1886 when he stated: “The learning of one man does not subtract from the learning of another, as if there were to be a limited quantity to be divided into exclusive holdings. . . . That which one man gains by discovery is a gain to other men. And these multiple gains become invested capital. . . .”

3“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without lessening mine.”

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