Guest blog: Harnessing science to foster sustainable improvements in the developing world

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This guest blog entry from Evelyn Strauss describes Scientists without Borders, a new initiative from the New York Academy of Sciences.

logoGoogle’s power is unprecedented, but even its strength
fails when faced with certain tasks. For example, a person seeking
organizations that work on neglected tropical diseases in
Africa might type "Africa neglected tropical diseases organization" into the
Google search box. 
If so, 127,000
results would pop up. Sorting through these items is daunting enough—but what
if the searcher desires more specific information? Say this individual is
looking for blood samples from schistosomiasis patients or wants to help an
African university that aspires to bolster its curriculum on neglected tropical
diseases. Perhaps he or she wishes to study oesophagostomiasis in Ghana and
wonders how labs there cope with the frequent power outages that plague the
country.

The new Scientists Without BordersSM Web site (http://scientistswithoutborders.nyas.org)
might help. Launched on May 12, its cornerstone is a free database that
collects key information about individuals, projects, and organizations that
work—or would like to work—in the developing world. This resource will allow
the scientific community to mobilize and coordinate its activities, thus
harnessing its potential to promote global health, agricultural progress,
environmental well-being, energy development, and so on. The online tool will
fuel communication, link individuals with institutions and projects that would
welcome their expertise, allow people to register their wants and assets, and
provide a mechanism by which organizations can build on one another’s progress.
With a few clicks, users can start matching needs with resources and find out
who is doing what where. Already, 141 organizations, 82 projects, and 421
individuals from all over the globe have completed profiles. The initiative has
raised more than $1 million—and a wide range of world-class organizations have
joined as programmatic partners. The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), which
is spearheading Scientists Without Borders, envisions it as a community venture
and actively seeks feedback about how the site can best serve its members.

As you know, vast communication gaps limit
sustainable improvements in the developing world. Materials, expertise, and
advice about how to navigate logistical challenges can be hard to track down.
Finding complementary partners poses difficulties because organizations don’t
document their activities in a public log. Well-meaning agencies "reinvent
the wheel," waste resources, and don’t always deliver what’s needed most,
because local needs are not catalogued in a central location. A mechanism to
address this predicament is needed now more than ever, with the growing
realization that integrated rather than narrow approaches are crucial for
addressing key global challenges such as extreme poverty and its associated
public-health problems.

With generous funding from Merck, the initiative’s founding
supporter, and other companies such as Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline,
Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Bausch & Lomb, Lundbeck, and Vestergaard Frandsen,
NYAS is building and hosting the Scientists Without Borders Web site. It
belongs, however, to the people and institutions that are improving quality of
life in the developing world through science-based strategies. Members of this
network—individuals, projects, and organizations—enter their own profile
information in the database and invite others to join; they also vet other
members by posting comments through a system similar to Amazon’s book-rating
scheme and contribute feedback about the site
 . Crucially, the community strongly influenced
the blueprint for Scientists Without Borders.

Informed design

At the end of 2006,
NYAS president, Ellis Rubinstein, hired me to bring to life a Web portal that
would "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" (see his article about
the conception of Scientists Without Borders
). I interviewed organization heads, researchers, project leaders, and
others from institutions in the developed and the developing world and the NYAS
team translated their responses into site content and functionality.

I was especially interested in individuals
who lived in the developing world and had seen many agencies come and go.
"What kind of mistakes do well-meaning foreign agencies commonly
make?" I asked. They all echoed the thoughts of Walter Alhassan at the
Forum for Agricultural Research in Ghana. "Donors and NGOs start a project
and someone else is doing something very similar," he said. "People
don’t do their homework about what has gone on before or what is happening now
… Donors will come in and want to throw money at a problem and not know what
has worked and hasn’t worked before. [There’s] no institutional memory because
the data isn’t easily accessible."

From that observation, we crafted a
"Lessons Learned" page, which asks registrants to record milestones
met, next steps (what specific activities would maintain, bolster, or advance
your project’s accomplishments?), and challenges (what obstacles must be
removed for further progress to occur?).

My visit to Ghana last summer further
refined our plans. For example, we needed to make the site accessible even
through extremely slow internet connections. My earthlink home page routinely took
30 or 45 minutes to load and one lecturer at the University of Cape Coast told
me that he’d be satisfied if he could accomplish a
single task on the Scientists Without Borders site per day. He typically starts
loading a Web page or conducting a search and then reads a journal article
until the computer task is complete. I returned home committed to devising
better solutions. We
created a low-bandwidth version of the site that
contains few images and other features that might hamper use. Furthermore, we designed the data-registration forms so that the
system saves information one page at a time; users can leave and return without
losing their work.

Data
in action

These submission forms request various
pieces of information from individuals, projects, and organizations. Some
fields—such as experience, languages, and other items that typically appear on
a CV—apply to only one group of registrants (in that case, individuals, but not
projects or organizations). Importantly, everyone can enter needs and resources.
Perhaps a university wants to recruit foreign instructors to teach short-term
courses or needs an LCD projector to launch a graduate-level journal club
program. A project might seek the closest analytical lab or microbial typing
facility; scientists from all over might desire collaborators. Even researchers
who don’t want to leave home could volunteer to help a colleague prepare a
manuscript for publication.

The site’s search engine ensures that
someone searching for a "teacher" will find an "instructor"
or an individual who is able to provide "instruction." Furthermore,
it allows visitors to slice and dice data however they’d like. They can find nutrition-education projects in a particular country
that serve children or identify infectious disease specialists in east Africa
who have a PhD and work at a university. The database can list projects in
Kenya that are studying drought-resistant crops or individuals from all over
the world with expertise in biodiversity who are willing to travel to Tanzania.
Similarly, those biodiversity experts can pinpoint individuals, projects, and
organizations that might put their skills or other resources to good use.
Visitors who don’t know exactly what they’re looking for (or might offer) can
browse and refine their explorations step by step.

The site displays
office locations as well as where individuals, projects, and organizations work
or are willing to work; in some cases, an agency or person might be based in
Paris, for example, but run a project in Rwanda or Benin. In the high-bandwidth
version, office locations for search results can be viewed on a Google map as
well as in list form. After the site is more fully populated, regions with many
activities will display a dense collection of icons, each of which represents
an individual, project, or organization; in contrast, areas with few activities
will visually convey gaps. The database therefore communicates not only what is happening where, but also how much
is happening where. One of our challenges is to communicate to individuals and
organizations the importance of separately register pursuits at locations other
than their office addresses. Doing so is the best way to convey their full
geographical reach.

Come
aboard

Since early January, the database has been
accruing information; it opened its doors last week so users can now mine the
data. The enterprise is relying in part on its members to ensure quality and
appropriateness of the individuals and organizations that will continue to
populate the site. It employs a model, similar to that of LinkedIn, that allows
people who have submitted full profiles (and agreed to keep them updated) to recruit
others. The name of the individual, project, or organization that invited the
new member will appear on that member’s profiles, thus promoting a sense of
community responsibility. Aspiring registrants can also request an invitation
from the Scientists Without Borders administrators by filling out a brief
application form on the site.

The potential power of the database is
tremendous, but depends on the extent to which it is populated and used. To
raise awareness about the initiative, we have been promoting the type of
"viral marketing" that other Web sites have harnessed to create
different types of social and professional networks. For example,
organizational partners are expanding the database’s universe by educating
their constituents and contacts about the initiative. At press time,
organizational partners included
the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, the Academy of Sciences
for the Developing World, the Earth Institute, the Noguchi Memorial Institute
for Medical Research, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, the Pasteur
Institute, Duke University Health System, the African Centre for Technology
Studies, the Sabin Vaccine Institute, Health Sciences Online, SciDevNet, the
University of Ghana, INDEPTH Network, Seeding Labs, Drugs for Neglected
Diseases initiative, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, the Science
Initiative Group, the Information Training and Outreach Centre for Africa, the
International Foundation for Science, the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation,
the American Society for Cell Biology, the Partnership for Quality Medical
Donations, and Sustainable Sciences Institute. We welcome additional
organizational partners.

The initiative belongs to you, so please participate in its
evolution. Create a profile for yourself and your projects. Tell leaders of
your organization—and other worthy organizations—about Scientists Without
Borders and encourage them to register. Explore the site, let us know when you
make meaningful connections through it, and tell us how we can improve it to
better meet your needs.

 

Evelyn Strauss, Ph.D.

Executive Director, Scientists Without Borders


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One Comment

richard mains

Dr. Strauss, this project and site are truly a great effort and you and your colleagues deserve much credit for launching both. I have been involved for years in science communications in the U.S., especially related to space life sciences research (and Earth applications) and can anticipate the major value that can come from this. Our experience working with the Russian, French, European, Canadian and Japanese Space Agencies has given us an appreciation of the language and cultural challenges when communicating science in the developed world. Doing so in the developing world will bring both greater challenges and no doubt, even greater rewards. I will populate my profile soon so please call on me if there is anything we can do to help. Best wishes for success, Richard Mains.

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