OECD - Ræðipunktar

22-23 JUNE 1 9 9 9

Iceland is the smallest of the OECD economies. In recent years we have clearly witnessed the positive effects of long-term investments in education, science and technology. They have started to pay off.

The average growth of our GDP since 1996 has been 5.3% a year and unemployment is now below 2% for the first time since 1991. New companies, for instance in genetic research, have in recent years created hundreds of new jobs for highly educated people. They have managed to reverse the brain drain.

Indeed the rapidly-growing information technology and biotechnological industries are step by step becoming more dominant in our economy and society. One clear example is that over 80% of the Icelandic population has access to the Internet.

The question is how we measure our knowledge-based assets properly. They should be recognised as financial assets and be looked at by those who measure performance from that point of view.

It can, however, be hard to define our knowledge capital. For instance, it is clear that in genetic research Iceland has the opportunity to be the first to examine the role of the new genetics from legal, medical and ethical viewpoints. We are in the process of putting the methods of the new genetics to test. This has created a heated debate in all fields of society, but it is clear that the vast majority of Icelanders are willing to submit data to an Icelandic healthcare database, which is now under construction.

It is also clear that from a financial and business point of view this new resource to locate disease-causing genes in the human genome is highly valued.

Those are scientific and economic issues in which the entire Icelandic nation is involved, so to speak, and every individual has to make up his mind whether to participate or not.

We should be keenly aware of the dramatic messages coming from the recent multinational research drillings on the Greenland glaciers, which prove that "global change" and "climate change" are nothing new. There have been drastic climatic changes over two hundred thousand years between warm and cold periods within an extended Ice Age, and now we find ourselves within the longest and most stable of many warm periods. Past changes came surprisingly fast - within the lifespan of a human genration. These natural physical forces, not caused by human activity, and their interaction with the biosphere, including humans, are simply not yet understood ! Therefore, it is difficult to make wise decisions for our progress into the future, except that of precautionary restraint. That, however, is only a temporary option, because humanity is still on the increase and all nations are entitled to a share in economic and social progress.

These concerns are vital to us and we call for an international effort of research into the physical and biologcial processes and cycles that are underlying these changes. We suggest that this matter be brought up in the new OECD Global Science Forum, which we heartily endorse.

An important related element of such an international effort, which we also support, would be the proposed Global Biodiversity Informational Facility. This is because one of the important indicators of global change, as well as the tools for responding to such change, would be information on the diversity and distribution of species and genomes of life forms under different conditions on earth. The new opportunities emerging from knowledge of the way genetic material from different life forms functions will also provide unforeseeable opportunities for innovations in the future.