I recently had the pleasure of attending an international summit for young bio-leaders of the future. My fellow attendees (including 4 Chileans out of a total of a 100 guests picked worldwide – a fact that admittedly filled me with pride) formed a diverse, rowdy and interesting crowd. The speaker selection was more conservative and homogeneous. A very wide range of biotechnology-related topics were discussed, from anti-aging techniques to patent managing to sustainability, but even with such a wide spectrum of talks, I saw a pattern emerging.
Every story the speakers (deans, professors, C-ranked executives) told happened in Europe or the US, in the biotechnology clusters located there. When they talked about developing countries, they were referring to China and India, who have a pretty comfortable advantage over my home country, as they are placed second and tenth in the UN’s list of countries by GDP for 2012. (Chile ranked 36 and we should have probably thrown a party.) Over the course of the summit, the talks focused on the EU or US and China and India for the “exotic” factor; the rest of the world was not mentioned.
This meant that the problems discussed did not stray beyond those borders, either. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that excellence clusters statistically produce the vast majority of advances in biotechnology, and things like age-preventing technologies are always interesting from the biological perspective. But aging is not an issue in the vast majority of the world. “Not aging” would describe it better.
If biotechnology developments continually come out of First World clusters, we will come up with solutions for only First World problems. Of course, there are always philanthropists that will direct their research towards the Third World, but that’s not enough, and more importantly, that’s not the point.
We do have great scientists over here. We can do great things, too. Southern science, or Third World biology, can be just as great as northern or First World science. The distribution of talent does not favor anyone in particular (not even in the clusters: a considerable amount of their scientists come from abroad), it’s the economic factors that drive talents away from their native countries and off to the traditional, renowned clusters. We need to figure out a way to reverse that. The reason is that while you can explain your particular problems to others, you are actually the person most qualified to solve them. In this regard, we need southern scientists that will tackle issues of water purification in remote areas, and Third World scientists battling child mortality.
To attack our own problems, we need to form new clusters with new priorities, new goals, new areas of action and expertise. I know that my current best option as a student, or as a biotechnologist, would be to flee my native Chile and try my luck in a traditional excellence cluster. But that’s not what I want. I want Chile to be a cluster, too, with its own local problems, goals and priorities, and I want it tackling those problems through international interaction. Local development is, in my opinion, key to broadening the scope and impact of our technologies.
Instead of putting down people who stay in their home country (hopefully this issue is limited to Chile, where local talent used to fly under the radar unless it literally flew over our borders) and insisting everyone leave for big clusters, we should start pursuing excellence locally. Showcase local talent. Drive efforts towards local issues. This way we could finally form an international net of clusters, each one tackling their own problems, and collaborating to make “the bigger picture” better. Science can’t – and I think, shouldn’t – be confined to certain borders. Let’s be broader. Let’s move forward.