Doctoral project 2

Governing common resources via digital platforms

Marine genetic resources are genetic materials taken from marine organisms of potential scientific or commercial value. Recent advancements in biotechnology have increased their importance and accessibility for research (Blasiak et al. 2020). For example, research explores which genes in marine organisms underly the production of essential metabolites for processes of intra- and interspecies communication, bacterial defence, and antifouling (Rotter et al. 2021Pubglisi et al. 2014). Knowledge about the responsible genes and related mechanisms can then be re-used to develop products for human application, including medicines, cosmetics, or foods.  

At the same time as they are a promising area of biotechnological innovation, marine genetic resources are a controversial issue in global biodiversity governance (Vadrot et al. 2021). This is due to a lack of a clear and functional ownership regime under international law, coupled with a highly unequal distribution of expertise and research capacities between developed and developing countries (Tolochko & Vadrot 2021Oberthür & Rosendal 2013). There is a long-standing concern in developing countries that genetic resources (both marine and terrestrial) are mostly being extracted from their territories but collected and used by developed countries (Vierros et al. 2016). The limited empirical research on relations between users and providers of genetic resources looks at citation patterns of digital sequence information in scientific publications and does not confirm this stance. In contrast, it finds that users tend to largely rely on information from within their own jurisdictions, rather than from developing countries across the board (Scholz et al. 2022Rohden et al. 2020). OECD countries are by far the biggest providers and users worldwide. Importantly, so far these studies are limited to scientific uses of digital sequence information and do not yet connect these findings to aspects of commercialization.

In this context, Paul’s dissertation explores in more detail how various forms of information related to marine genetic resources (including environmental samples, digital sequence information, scientific publications, and patents) travel between countries of sequence origin, countries of research, and countries of commercialisation. Paul uses multiple open-access databases to trace these information flows and to construct a large-scale social network of involved actors (i.e. countries and researchers). Mapping this social network, Paul seeks to contribute to a better understanding of user-provider relations expanding into commercial domains and to establish research avenues into mechanisms behind the exclusion or inclusion of scientists from developing countries. As such, the project aims to inform policy-making at various levels, including considerations of trust and inclusivity as necessary ingredients of a functional marine genetic resource system.