A new initiative matches up scientists with problems in developing countries to help the world’s poor.
Researchers can often be accused of working on niche problems with little application in the wider world. A new charity promises to kick that reputation. Science for Humanity, launching on Tuesday 4 March, will create a database of British scientists along with a list of problems in the developing world that might benefit from innovative solutions.
Baroness Susan Greenfield, who is a trustee of the initiative, proposed the idea in her visionary book Tomorrow’s People, published in 2003. She suggested that Western scientists might use cutting-edge technologies to help the poor.
“One can get blinkered by one’s own specific area of research,” she explains, “but if they have the opportunity scientists love to think around problems and see their technologies having as much impact as possible.”
Five years on, the idea finally coalesced when she discussed it with other scientists and NGOs. With help from the management consulting firm McKinsey and 18 months of funding from NESTA, Science for Humanity became a reality.
Her hope is that the charity will create a dialogue between researchers and NGOs. The kind of inventive research the charity wants to encourage includes a strain of genetically engineered cress that changes colour when planted close to landmines. Or a type of algae that generates hydrogen in anaerobic conditions—perfect for clean, low-cost fuel cells.
Will it work?
“The difference between a delusion and a vision is whether people are behind you or not,” says Greenfield. And she has plenty of people on board, including trustee Julia Goodfellow, former head of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
But will Science for Humanity work? Philip Rowley, chief executive of the charity, anticipates enough support from the scientific community to turn ideals into results. “The truth is that a lot of people go into science to do good. Our ideal model is to always work from the problem backwards so that those in the developing world are involved in the process from the start,” he says.
The concept builds upon work done by an existing UK charity, called Practical Action, which has been applying small-scale technologies in the developing world for decades—things like solar-powered cooking stoves and earthquake-resistant housing.
Susan Greenfield and solar-powered cooking stove in kenya (credit: Practical Action).
David Grimshaw, now a consultant to Science for Humanity, has no doubt that there is much more scope for researchers to get involved: “The way science has worked in the past hasn’t delivered all the promised benefits to society,” he says.
Grimshaw cites water sanitation and access to cleaner energy as issues with potentially rapid solutions by scientists. “One particular problem we’ve looked at is mercury poisoning in the water in Peru, caused by gold mining. One possible solution to this is nano-filters, and that’s something we’re looking at right now.”
Hearts and brains
Developing a product from a concept can take many years. The charity’s solution is to exploit existing patent ideas while developing new ones—a plan that relies on scientists willingly giving up their ideas and sharing research. “The scientists I’ve spoken to about this project have got room in their hearts and their brains for this,” David Grimshaw says optimistically.
Although the charity will begin by working with British researchers, university departments from all over the world, especially in developing countries, will be included later. It also promises to help scientists get funding once they’ve identified areas for them to work on.
Cuddly and idealistic though it may all seem, Philip Rowley insists that there is more to gain from the charity than a warm, fuzzy feeling inside: “This is not just about altruism. These are challenging and interesting problems for scientists.”