Bill Gates goes open source

To combat AIDS, Microsoft's founder learns from Linux.

Published July 20, 2006 5:31PM (EDT)

So the Gates Foundation announces that it is giving $287 million in a barrage of grants aimed at developing an HIV vaccine. But one of the conditions of the funding is that the multiple teams of researchers have to share their data with each other, along with the tools and various biochemical compounds that they develop. According to today's Wall Street Journal, this is a "radical concept."

"Even as AIDS researchers around the world strive toward a common goal, they do so largely independent of one another due to a mix of commercial interests, bureaucratic jostling and personal rivalries," says the Journal. "Like most biomedical research, results of AIDS-related studies are often carried out in secrecy, with successes and failures closely held until they are published in scientific journals months later."

Radical? There's nothing radical about sharing your work so as to make faster overall progress. This is a fundamental proposition of the open-source software development methodology, which in turn draws upon an intellectual tradition of shared scientific research that goes back for centuries. It's only much more recently, as commercial interests have overwhelmed science and medicine, that sharing has become verboten.

That money made from selling Microsoft stock should be financing this "radical" approach is a historical twist that is beyond irony. Some 30 years ago, Gates kicked off the proprietary era of software development with his infamous Open Letter to Hobbyists, whining plaintively about all the computer hackers who were using the BASIC programming language without paying royalties to Microsoft. How would any work get done if people weren't properly compensated, he asked.

But what about all the work that doesn't get done because of commercial competition that hobbles the free exchange of information?

The HIV Grants Backgrounder published on the Gates Foundation Web site notes that the philosophy behind the new grants follows the "Scientific Strategic Plan of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, an international alliance of researchers, funders, and advocates dedicated to accelerating HIV vaccine development by implementing a shared scientific plan." The Enterprise plan, which has been in the works since 2003, was published in the February issue of PLoS Medicine. (PLoS stands for Public Library of Science, an organization dedicated to making scientific information publicly accessible.)

The PLoS article noted that intellectual property considerations would have to be dealt with. But "while IP issues may arise throughout the vaccine development process, at present the top priority is to stimulate early stage research and vaccine design by increasing scientific freedom to operate and sharing of data and biological materials."

"For participating investigators and organizations, key principles include (1) the willingness and desire to work in an open, collaborative fashion, sharing data and reagents in a collegial fashion, with the appropriate balance between productive competition and effective collaboration."

Working in an open, collaborative fashion? That's the calling card of the free software movement. It's so nice to see Bill Gates finally joining up.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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