A Samoan tree produces very small quantities of prostratin, a substance that may help treat AIDS. The University of California Berkeley is trying to make genetically modified bacteria able to produce prostratin in industrial quantities. The administrators of Berkeley have decided that, if the research is successful, they will sell the pharmaceutical product at a discounted price in the developing world, and will give part of the proceeds to the Samoan government and some Samoan individuals. This gift is wrapped in colorful language, with talk of "returning" the money to the "Samoan people" in "recognition for Samoa's assertion of national sovereignty over the gene sequence of prostratin and the intellectual contribution of the healers of Samoa [who helped ethnobotanists to find prostratin]". They will also invite "some Samoan researchers to Berkeley to learn the latest technologies in genetic engineering and synthetic biology."
I don't know the details of how Berkeley and its research are funded. If part of the money comes from U.S. taxpayers some of them may not be very happy that Berkeley plans to give away its money to some Samoans, or to the "Samoan people," instead of spending it in education and further medical research. Given my ignorance I will not dwell on that.
The interesting thing is that researchers at Stanford University have recently been able to synthesize prostratin in substantial quantities and at a reasonable cost. This, of course, is good news for AIDS patients...
"Synthesis of analogs, however, raises interesting issues concerning indigenous intellectual property rights," say Paul Alan Cox, Holly E. Johnson and Gaugau Tavana, ethnobotanists with links to the Samoan healers, in Science. "In the spirit of these previous agreements [the Berkeley gift], we encourage future developers of prostratin analogs for antiviral therapy to negotiate fair and equitable benefits with the Samoan people."
The next time I receive a gift I will say "Thank you very much for your nice gift, although I am disappointed that you have not previously negotiated it with me in a fair and equitable manner."