Germany apparantly plans to end systematic and phylogenetic research

Yesterday, I received a disturbing rumour. Germany finally has a concept to become a lightning star regarding the protection of natural and genetic resources. An add-on to/complete fulfilment of the Nagoma protocol [PDF]. If the plan become law, it's the dawn of phylogenetic research in Germany and German herbaria will become unusable for scientific research.

Damokles' sword

A colleague of mine received the information that Germany is going to make her work impossible. Systematic research these days relies on
  • material stored in our many herbaria, some with invaluable treasures (plants essentially impossible to find in nature), and all massively under-staffed;
  • DNA sequences obtained from herbaria material or material collected in the wild.
Germany, trying to be a Musterschüler again, a brilliant example, apparently now wants to declare all material coming from a country property of that country. Researcher that want to work the material, e.g. having it sequenced for phylogenetic studies, would then need to apply for permission with the country, and pay a sort of royalty. And not only for generating new data, but also for using already published data. And as consequence, the first institutes in Germany have already closed away all material collected after 1999.

Shielding second- and third-world countries from biotech companies depleting them of genetic resources is a laudable goal. But systematic botanists and phylogeneticists do not use sequences that have shown (so far; a gene banks include millions of them) any possible economic use. Their research results have no economic use, it is fundamental science. For generating the sequences, a part of a leaf is used, neither harming the plant nor depleting any natural resource.

The irony

Throughout the EU the national research agencies are trying to implement or enforce open access and open data policies. Molecular data has a long tradition of being open data. So, any sequence used in a scientific paper must be submitted to one of the gene banks. Once published, they become common property. The sequence gets released and can be re-used by any other researcher or other person. Germany apparently wants to end this two-decade long, exemplary tradition of shared knowledge and turn back the wheels of time.

The practise

I did quite a lot of data harvest in gene banks for various reasons. One being that we (my collaborators and me) lacked the proper funding to generate new data on our own, another that I was interested in checking up odd results published in confidentially peer-reviewed journals. Including journals that do not enforce any measure for releasing or documenting the used data matrices. A third was that reviewers challenged our reconstructions, asking for more.

 Re-using published data in future, openly accessible via gene banks

According to the new law, when I do a gene bank harvest (easily a couple of thousand sequences) to demonstrate something, I would have first to establish the origin of all sequences. Which is very tricky, because most sequences uploaded to the American gene bank (NCBI GenBank) do not include any voucher or country information. I would need to dig out all literature, many of which is not openly accessible. Maybe need to pay for it (filling the purses of the big, highly profitable science-publishers with public money even more!). Then I would to have contact state agencies of dozens of countries and apply for the permission to use "their" data and pay royalities. Let's imagine, I would new an old rich lady paying the bills (like Madame Bettencourt), alone the time needed would kill the study: the extra time for researching the origin of the data, no data-slave to do it (basic research is notoriously under-staffed, too, in particular regarding systematic botany). Plus, it took me more than half-a-year to get my forth, the French, social insurance number. And France is a country of the first world. It may be quicker in certain countries, because you just pack a thick bundle of Benjamin Franklin's in the envelope including the formal application. Will be fun to get it refunded from your research agency (in case you don't have a Bettencourt as backup).

Modern distribution of Loranthaceae (see Grimsson et al., 2017, PeerJ, open access paper and data). Our data harvest included 581 individual accession covering species originating from pretty much any region shown in the map (maybe 50 or so different countries; many original studies usually using material stored in European herbaria, but some material was newly sequenced in the last 10 years from material collected in the wild by local researchers). Not to mention our earlier pollen analysis (Grímsson et al., 2017, Grana, open access paper and data, in both cases made possible due to funding by the Austrian Science Fund FWF). For doing papers like these in future, Grímsson would need to contact dozens of state agencies in five continents, providing nothing. Just for the principle. Maybe the EU ensures the royalties at least end up in the herbaria and local research institutes that originally provided the material, and not in the deep, dark pockets...

Doing proper research, impossible

And to make detailed biogeographic studies like we did on oaks, which can and should only be done using material from original stands, we would need to contact and pay agencies of two dozen Mediterranean countries, including one that does not belief in the evolutionary "theory", Turkey. Turkey is still understudied regarding systematic botany, and the only country in the developed world that shares the U.S. preference for medivial mind-sets (burn those who challenge the Word). We had our experience with state agencies and applications there (which turned ok in the end, since what we do hurts nobody and no money can be earned with it), but I'm pretty sure the emerging Sultanate of Tayyip Sequence Royality Office will be very professional regarding any application for (re-)using our sequences; or to allow making new ones for some satanic research (i.e. on evolution). And then there would be of course their Iraqian, Iranian, and Syrian counterparts. Not too mention that we barely had the financial means to do the study as it is (currently brain-storming where to get the money to publish our latests results, me working pro bono, without being paid a cent by any country), in the bright new future, you need to decide which student will get no pay the next months, because you need the money for royalities to pay state agencies in notably or increasingly corrupt countries.

The sampling for our upcoming paper on oaks. All sequences were obtained from material collected at place, either by us or local contacts. No plant died because of the sampling. Sequences are already stored with the EMBL database, the European gene bank. The following countries will benefit in future in case our data set is re-used (it will be open data, and open access, if we can afford it): Marocco, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Tunesia. Have fun applying for the right to re-use!

It would be a good first-of-April joke, this new German idea to protect national treasures at all cost. I hope it is. But I fear, it may be not. Personally, I then may get sued for each future post on networks at the Genealogical World of Networks like the last one (usually re-used data, from all over the world, many agencies that can ask for royalities; aside, I will surely not spend days to research where the stuff comes from that the original authors used...)

Obviously, Germany, wants to make it impossible for their (state-employed and -funded, if lucky) researchers to freely research, despite our long tradition in systematics (Hennig was German). Thus leave any future phylogenetic research to the U.S. and the Chinese. But Temer and Zuma are surely enjoying some extra income, poor buggers that they are...

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