Labs can throw a lifeline to our struggling nations

December 3, 2004

Tony Blair must make the creation of scientists throughout the developing world a priority, says Robert May

A major factor in the Western world's takeover of the New World and Oceania was the viral and bacterial agents they unwittingly brought with them.

This is perhaps one of the earliest, and certainly most dramatic, examples of asymmetric conflict.

In the developed world, the rise of better nutrition and hygiene over the past century has greatly diminished mortality from infectious diseases.

With the advent of antibiotics and vaccination, the West arrived at a state where, in 1967, the US Surgeon General could write: "The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases."

Today, that statement looks like a strong contender for the most stupid prediction ever (and even in its own time it was an astounding piece of American exceptionalism, utterly disregarding the developing world).

HIV/Aids changed all that. Roughly 2.9 million died of Aids last year. We were lucky with severe acute respiratory syndrome, which turned out not to be as "spreadable" as the influenza virus. Next time we may not be so lucky.

The response of the biomedical community is encouraging. The dark side, however, deserves a look. Sometime in 2005, in a city - maybe London, maybe Lagos - a child will be born who will tip the scales so that more people live in urban than in rural areas.

All the net increase in the world's population will be added in cities, mostly in slums, ideal breeding grounds for new and old infections. Some of these infections will likely come from close contact with domestic or commensal animals, or from handling or eating novel exotics.

The bushmeat trade was traditionally small and local; today, it grows apace, globalised to supply, for example, specialised restaurants in southern China with produce from the forests of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

It is fashionable to worry about new diseases in the context of terrorism. My view is that the bushmeat trade, in a general sense, is a greater danger. The molecular evidence makes it clear that this is how we acquired HIV-1 (from chimpanzees) and HIV-2 (from macaques). Here is an issue uniting public health with conserving biological diversity, and it deserves more attention from the international scientific community than it is getting.

Combating HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases is just one of the United Nation's catalogue of Millennium Development Goals, along with eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

Each relies on current and future science (including the social sciences) for its solution.

All will present great challenges to the rich industrialised nations, but they will be even more formidable for the poorer developing nations. There is a staggering gap in science and technology capabilities between rich and poor countries.

This places a clear responsibility on the industrialised nations. Yet it sometimes appears that the UK still has not realised just how important such scientific capability is to the future of developing countries.

The Prime Minister has indicated that Africa will be a main focus for next year's UK presidency of the G8 group of nations and the European Council of Ministers. He has also established a Commission for Africa, though one glance at its composition and the issues it plans to tackle suggests that science and technology does not figure as prominently as it should. The Royal Society believes the subject needs to be made a principal theme because it is so crucial to achieving the other objectives.

African nations should be encouraged and supported to develop successive generations of scientists who can tackle the indigenous problems that they face. This process begins in primary school, continues through secondary school, university, and on to business and industry. Only then can these countries achieve populations who recognise the benefits and the limitations of science and technology.

I have, therefore, written to the Prime Minister offering to put together a group of leading scientists from the developed and developing world to help the commission with its work. I have further stressed that the building of capacity in science and technology should be a priority in any strategy for Africa and that the Government should make a substantial investment in the area during the next spending review.

Lord May of Oxford is president of the Royal Society. This article is based on his presidential address delivered this week.

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