Guest Post: A Shifting Landscape for International Biology-related Research

Editor’s note: Today we’re bringing you a guest post on issues related to international biology research written for us by Elizabeth (Libby) Lyons, Regional Program Coordinator: Africa, Near East and South Asia (ANESA) in the NSF International Science and Engineering (ISE) office. Libby is also a former DEB Program Officer. We’d like to thank Libby for taking the time to discuss this topic with us and her willingness to share her expertise and experience here on DEBrief. The content is important and applicable beyond DEB so we hope you’ll take the time to share it with your colleagues.

Late in 2014 a new international agreement became official that could affect any research using biological material in or from other countries. We want to help NSF-funded PIs adapt to any resultant changes so that the benefits of NSF-funded scientific discovery, workforce development and education, international collaboration, biodiversity conservation and/or capacity-building can continue in the United States and in partner countries.

We start with two important points:

  • This agreement applies to almost all international projects involving non-human biological resources, even if you don’t plan to transport material back to the U.S. and even if you don’t expect any commercial use! If you work internationally with non-human material that contains DNA the process for securing research, collection and/or export permits for your project could be affected.
  • Sovereign nations own their biological resources and associated traditional knowledge, and therefore have the right to make laws about their use and protection. NSF and your institution require you to follow those laws and secure the required permits!


The agreement, known as the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing of Genetic Resources[i] (NP hereafter), aims to help countries develop standard protocols and protections for access to and sharing of benefits derived from their biological materials. Alas, in the near term, the NP is likely to place international biological research, especially fieldwork, under greater political scrutiny and increase its complexity due to variation across countries in, for example, interpretation of NP language, balance between use and protection, and stage of development of relevant laws. We note however, that in some countries there will be no change to current protocols, in some parts of the world there is growing regional cooperation[ii], and in others the permitting process has been simplified due to recognition of the importance of fundamental research with no commercial objectives.

Possible ways to adapt to this new landscape:

  • learn about the issues around the NP. The Swiss Academy of Sciences has published several documents on Access and Benefit Sharing involving non-commercial academic research, which provide an overview of terms, general processes and effective practices. Scientific societies and collections/museum consortia may also be resources for relevant information.
  • learn about the permitting requirements for country(ies) where you work. Country information will eventually be centralized at the NP Clearinghouse, though that effort is just starting. It may help to reach out to other researchers working in the same country to share knowledge and approaches.
  • apply for permits for the broadest scope of project you think possible, so that if your project or a related student project moves in a slightly different direction you not need re-apply.
  • strengthen relationships with your foreign collaborators. NSF encourages such collaboration and these scientists will likely be knowledgeable of the requirements in their country; some countries may require in-country research partners be named on permit applications.
  • be able to articulate how your research can benefit the partner country. Such benefits will usually be non-monetary, but from the perspective of partner countries, they include critically important outcomes such as discovery of biodiversity, co-training of students, academic collaboration and networks, and conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
  • consider adjusting the timing of your project. Learn about the permitting process in advance and apply for permits ASAP. Consider delaying the start date of your NSF award and/or the hiring of critical personnel (e.g., post-docs) until all final permissions are in hand.

We recognize that these international requirements could be cumbersome, but we emphasize the importance of compliance. In the past, non-compliance has had serious consequences for PIs, projects, U.S. universities and even international relationships between the United States and other countries.

PIs with questions are encouraged to get in touch with us. Either Libby or any of the ISE regional contacts can help. If DEB is your usual programmatic home at NSF, Simon Malcomber serves as a local point of contact.


[i] The official name is the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (ABS) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (website: ).

[ii] Access and Benefit-Sharing in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Science-Policy Dialogue for Academic Research. Diversitas, June 2014.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Shifting Landscape for International Biology-related Research

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