Linking up development

    An initiative to link scientists in the poorest nations with colleagues around the world deserves support.

    In September 2000, the United Nations pledged to achieve eight Millennium Development Goals by 2015 — among them, halving extreme poverty, providing primary education to all and stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS. The goals have spurred unprecedented efforts by countries and development agencies alike. But some of those efforts, such as the controversial One Laptop Per Child Project, which is widely seen as a developed-world solution to a developing-world issue, should also serve as a warning of the illusion that the problems of development can be solved with technological quick fixes.

    That circumspection should be borne in mind by Scientists Without Borders — an initiative launched with great fanfare on 12 May by the New York Academy of Sciences in partnership with the UN Millennium Project. The initiative aims to address health and other issues in developing countries by using the Internet to bring together scientists from different countries and fields.

    “Scientists should nurture this fledgling initiative.”

    The academy argues that the initiative will “create a broad array of synergistic linkages among the many bold but heretofore unconnected efforts to generate science-driven, sustainable development in the poorest of the poor communities”. As a result, it predicts, universities in rich and poor nations will volunteer to work together to train local staff, and people and institutions will learn from one another and collaborate on development issues in a more interdisciplinary and integrated fashion.

    The caveat, of course, is that better communication between scientists alone cannot magically transform Africa, or any other part of the developing world. And although the virtual Scientists Without Borders has gained the support of some impressive partners — including France's Institut Pasteur and the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland — it has only one full-time staff member, and has raised US$1 million. As such, it has little in common — aside from its name — with the operational agency Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), which has a €569 million (US$896 million) annual budget, and thousands of staff around the world.

    That said, however, we hope that the academy is right, and that Scientists Without Borders will rapidly become the Facebook of development. The initiative certainly deserves scientists' full support for its efforts to boost the capacity of researchers in poorer countries. Consider its first initiative: to create an online database in which scientists and institutions can register their profiles, and so connect with others who share similar interests. Yes, many databases and social networks already exist for scientists. But Scientists Without Borders is unique in its commitment to raise the visibility of research in developing countries, and to compile an inventory of who is doing what — specifically limited to those who have expressed an interest in cooperating. This in itself is a worthwhile exercise. The database will also tap user profiles to match research needs with available resources, say, or to announce the availability of volunteer work and research collaborations — although it is still far from clear how this will work in practice.

    Scientists Without Borders faces a wider challenge given its coverage of all disciplines and sectors, as it makes it difficult for experts to pick out the information that is relevant to them. Online communities of practice tend to flourish around bottom-up approaches that generate centres of common interest that keep members active and coming back for more. But it is encouraging that the organizers seem keen for users to suggest changes to the Scientists Without Borders platform to meet their needs. Experience elsewhere shows that demand for social networks is critically dependent on them satisfying real user exigencies.

    Most importantly, the initiative has generated hope. As one new user told Nature, it has for the first time provided him with a space to “put my skills on the radar of those directly involved in projects in the developing world; I hope I can contribute in some way.” We would encourage scientists to sign up and participate, and nurture this fledgling initiative.

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    Linking up development. Nature 453, 564 (2008) doi:10.1038/453564a

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