Speaking at the University of Washington in Seattle, President Higgins urged a move towards a “science without borders”, saying wealthy countries had a head-start in technological innovation and there was a moral question around the belief that this advantage should be exploited for commercial gain to the detriment of weaker nations.
“The question of access is central. We have a choice: to make available the benefits of science in a spirit of solidarity and under the ethic of sharing the benefits of advances in knowledge and understanding, or to reduce knowledge to a tradable commodity, which becomes another dimension to the imbalance and inequalities we inherit from history.”
He cited the example of the protracted legal battle South Africa endured to access affordable retro-viral medication to tackle the country’s AIDS epidemic, a battle that pitted the ‘right’ to profiteer against the right to life.
He said similar issues had arisen more recently with the ebola epidemic. “One might ask is it acceptable to ask ebola-stricken countries like Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to give interest payments on debt priority over basic health infrastructure, emergency food systems or education?”
President Higgins is on an eight-day official visit to the west coast of the United States and his speech last night was the first of two keynote addresses. He will speak next Monday at the University of California, Berkeley, addressing the themes of ending global hunger and eliminating poverty.
President Higgins also delved into those themes during last night’s address, arguing an inextricable link between scientific freedom, sustainable development and freedom from poverty. He also said none of these issues could be detached from climate change.
“Superfluous consumption in the richest and in the expanding economies is exacerbating the disadvantages of the poorest.
“Desertification, soil degradation, water contamination, increased frequency of storms and other extreme weather events are all caused by climate change resulting from emissions in the industrialised world, and all disproportionately affect the poorest regions.”
But he warned that states faced difficulties in reining in behaviours accelerating climate change because true economic power was held by corporations.
“Elected governments are responsible for an ever- decreasing portion of the global economic space,” he said.
“While accountability can be demanded from states, many dominant multinational corporations are opposed to regulation of the type that is necessary.
“Bearing in mind that it is estimated that just 90 large companies alone have contributed nearly two-thirds of man-made carbon emissions, this important challenge of accountability can be appreciated.”