Time for a Global Science Corps

Spend a year in a lab in a developing country, and build scientific capacity around the world

By | June 1, 2006

<figcaption>A malaria research clinic in a Malian village.</figcaption>
A malaria research clinic in a Malian village.

In 1882, Iranian scholar and political activist Sayyid al-Afghani made a prescient argument that there is no "European science" or "Muslim science." Those who say there is, he went on, "have not understood that science is that noble thing that has no connection with any nation and is not distinguished by anything but itself."1 Today, in a world increasingly fractured by national and cultural differences, we scientists should be seeking ways to promote science as a universal activity with the potential to advance public welfare.

One way to do this - and to help reduce economic and social disparities between nations - is to provide opportunities for well-trained scientists to work at those few places in developing countries where excellent scientific work is already possible. That's the goal of the Global Science Corps (GSC), a new program to build scientific capacity in the developing world. The GSC aspires to place scientists and engineers, referred to as GSC fellows, at research facilities in developing countries for one-year terms to collaborate with local partners.

Such efforts need not be drudgery or self-sacrifice; they can be productive intellectual adventures. Imagine spending a postdoctoral year in Botswana collaborating with local chemists and ecologists to study the largest inland delta in the world. Consider a sabbatical year in Chile as a member of an international network of scientists conducting applied research on complex engineering systems. Think about collaborating as a senior scientist with Ugandan colleagues in biochemistry and bioinformatics as they study antimalarial drug resistance and malaria vaccines.

Astronomy in Brazil, epidemiology in Vietnam, and molecular biology in Cameroon are among the opportunities that will be available. The hope is that with the right funding, five to 10 fellows could be selected next year, with growth after that. Placements will be custom-designed to suit the strengths and needs of fellow and host. Typically, fellowships will emphasize research and include some lecturing and teaching. The program will encourage and support long-term collaboration through electronic communication, possible exchange visits, and the establishment of a GSC alumni network.

Since I introduced the idea in 2001 at the Nobel Jubilee Symposium in Stockholm, www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/6285.cfm the GSC concept has gradually gained attention and support from organizations and individuals around the world. It moved toward implementation when it found an administrative home with the Science Initiative Group (SIG), a small, international team of leading scientists. SIG also works in informal partnership with the World Bank to manage the Millennium Science Initiative (MSI), which supports competitively selected centers of scientific excellence in developing countries. MSI centers will be among GSC host institutions, and SIG, with its extensive international network of contacts, will help make appropriate placements for GSC fellows.

Inquiries and suggestions from scientists in developing countries and from faculty and researchers in the United States and Canada are helping to shape the program. Some universities are offering the GSC as a sabbatical experience for faculty members, using sabbatical salaries for this purpose or a fellowship opportunity for postgraduates. The United Nations Development Program is supporting the development of a GSC component targeting scientists who have left the poor countries of their birth and others from advanced developing countries. In January, the African Academy of Sciences co-convened a workshop to assess demand on the receiving side (which, predictably, is high) and provide advice about GSC design. We'll then measure success, first by satisfaction among fellows and host institutions, and eventually by the number of papers published, improvements at host institutions, and other factors.

As with many new ideas, GSC's success rides on a few key factors: the determination of the people responsible for its implementation, adequate funding, and the talent and enthusiasm of GSC fellows. SIG will help with the GSC's infrastructure; I hope multilateral organizations, universities, foundations, and philanthropists will recognize the virtues of investing in the GSC. We seek inspired scientists who will offer their expertise to promote science in the developing world. Visit us at www.globalsciencecorps.org.

Harold Varmus is president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and a member of SIG (www.msi-sig.org).

1. Cited by Vartan Gregorian in Islam: A Mosaic not a Monolith, Brookings Institution Press, 2002.


Avatar of: ogechi ikediobi

ogechi ikediobi

Posts: 4

June 22, 2006

This article is very timely and highlights the sentiments of, I think, a growing body of young scientists. Indeed, thinking of conducting science as a "scientists without borders" concept may aid in breaking down barriers to collaboration between developed and developing countries. This will open up avenues for more discoveries.

June 30, 2006

The opinions expressed by Dr. Varmus are extremely encouraging to those people and institutions who are working towards closer links with developing countries. I represent the International Society of Biomechanics---a field that covers research into artificial limbs, orthopedic implants, mechanics of human gait and even the origins of bipedality (to name a few examples). There are numerous reasons why collaborations with developing countries would benefit both the visiting and host scientists. The International Society of Biomechanics has, for many years, had a program for "Economically Disadvantaged Countries" that has involved covering the costs of visiting lecturers and support with local meetings. We are now expanding these efforts to include setting up new labs and providing support for infrastructure in countries in Africa and elsewhere. I had the good fortune of visiting Tanzania and South Africa last year and, together with others in the field, there are now efforts to work with prosthetists in Tanzania, anthropologists in Kenya and ergonomics researchers in South Africa. Our two most recent newsletters (see http://www.isbweb.org) have focused on Africa and South America, and we welcome collaborations with nations in these continents.\n
Avatar of: John Crews

John Crews

Posts: 6

December 22, 2008

I thank The Scientists for publishing this very important article. My colleagues and I have been working in post-conflict and developing countries for almost ten years to bring advanced forensic laboratories to disenfranchised populations. \n\nBeginning in 2000, we built 5 forensic DNA labs throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, and assisted with the development of a lab in Croatia. These labs were (and are still) used to identify persons being recovered from mass graves. In addition, working in Guatemala under the non-profit Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFAG), the first fully functional forensic DNA lab in Central America was inaugurated this past November.\n\nCountries are starving for this type and level of development. Areas previously thought to be too violent to support such scientific endeavors are now eagerly working to bring forensic science to their people. In creating these laboratories we do not just provide training and equipment, but we help them develop a thought process where logic and reasoning are paramount and creativity and initiative are rewarded. Within this training is not just how to perform a procedure, but an understanding of the physics, optics, biology, chemistry, statistics, and computer processes that go into making the equipment work and obtaining consistent, acceptable data. \n\nCreating these labs builds up a country?s scientific infrastructure and creates technical jobs where few existed before. But these forensic projects are more than just science, they are bringing justice and accountability to people adversely affected by crime and injustice in their countries. And, with the throughput to process hundreds of cases in short period of time, justice can now be extended beyond just the victim and include an entire population searching for answers to violence and crime.\n\nJust last week, for the first time in Guatemala?s recent history, the Guatemalan government took responsibility for analyzing the DNA from crime scenes in Guatemala. Prior to opening of the FAFG laboratory, justice for anyone was effectively absent. With approximately 5 (officially reported) murders per day in a city of three million people, Guatemala City hosts one of the world?s highest crimes rates. \n\nI applaud GSI, SIG, MSI and particularly Harold Varmus for their initiative and courage to start such an international effort. I also applaud Guatemala and organizations such as the FAFG who are striving to create a better and more secure environment. Hopefully, with perseverance, hard work and reasonable funding, science can help create a new era of hope in otherwise desperate countries.\n
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

December 24, 2008

We should take some steps to ensure that abuses don't happen, because the power relations are pretty lopsided. But with that one caveat, I think this is a very good idea. I had to think about it for a while, because I have spent years in the developing world, and it is a mosaic. Let me give some examples of what I mean. \n\nI have been impressed with the incredible ignorance and extreme frustration of dealing with developing world bureaucracy, and also with UN, UNHCR, and USA bureaucracy. But I have also found people who are very, very smart, that have accomplished near miracles by applying their education. From a home-made step-down transformer that pulled power off the subway rails to scientists that built their computers, literally out of trash parts, I learned never to underestimate people. \n\nI met a couple of people in the former USSR who made pretty convincing cases that their inventions had been stolen by Japanese after providing working prototypes. The Japanese patent times lined up, for instance. Japan is a first to file nation. \n\nWill we see researchers charged with crimes for recording genes identified in developing nations that are useful? This is another side of this proposal. \n\nWe should talk about, and have some idea what we are going to do when abuses come up. The more scientists participate in these programs, the more likely something will come up. Perhaps we can do better with this program than we do at home?

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