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Why Science And Technology Research Needs More Global Diversity

Disease and environmental problems don’t respect borders.

Why Science And Technology Research Needs More Global Diversity
[Painting by Paul Corio]

Scientists at the University of the Philippines’s Institute of Biology work in one of the most richly biodiverse countries in the world. Yet as recently as last year they lacked one key piece of laboratory equipment–an HPLC, a machine common in biology research labs in the United States–that would help the world understand and benefit from this natural ecology.

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That changed in August, when Seeding Labs, a small nonprofit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent over a second-hand HPLC machine, along with more than 100 other pieces of used lab equipment, including microscopes and incubators, worth a total of $150,000.

In addition to the equipment’s use in training 550 undergraduate and graduate students, the donation can help the Institute complete research it couldn’t easily do before: screen indigenous plants for new medicinal compounds, examine the DNA of infectious parasites, and explore the genetic diversity of important coral reefs and timber trees.

Seeding Labs, the group behind the initiative, has donated a little more than $2 million worth of used scientific equipment since 2003, collected from U.S. labs and universities, to 25 schools in 20 developing countries, from Jamaica to Ghana. Now, with a $3 million partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, it hopes to expand its work quickly and reach up to 100 schools in the next three years.

“This is about unleashing a lot of creativity and innovation around the world. There are terrifically talented people everywhere, and they are working on some of the front lines of the problems that the world faces. Disease does not respect geographic boundaries. Environmental problems don’t respect geographic boundaries,” says Nina Dudnik, founder of Seeding Labs. “It’s our ambition that the most talented and ambitious scientists and technologists around the world have the resources to tackle these front-line challenges wherever they develop.”

There are large disparities in R&D capacity in many developing countries. According to recent data from the World Bank, Iceland has about 9,000 research professionals per million people of population compared to 12 researchers per million people in Rwanda. To look at it another way: Bangladeshi researchers published 260 scientific and technical journal articles in 2009 versus almost 30,000 in Canada.

Dudnik is tackling an underserved area in the context of global aid funding. While a fair amount of global aid resources are devoted to improving primary education, expanding research capacity in higher education is not always a big a priority. Seeding Labs relies on a network of companies and universities (mostly in the Northeast to date) that donate used and surplus equipment in good condition–often as opposed to having it sit in a basement somewhere–and matches the equipment to the needs and capacities of developing world universities that apply. With the USAID money, Seeding Labs now plans to increase its volume and also develop better training resources. “It’s really a massive return on investment,” Dudnik says.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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