US spirit is willing, but funds are still weak

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  • 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd

    oping countries has increased sevenfold, tomore than $150 billion per year.

    Wolfensohn is known to be keen for theWorld Banks profile as a knowledge bank tobe raised. When the bank was a major finan-cial influence, its information role was down-graded, says Weiss. Now it is the reverse.

    Unusually for a lending institution, theWorld Bank possesses world-class expertiseon the projects and the regions where it lendsmoney. Of its 8,000 staff, 3,000 have a PhD-level qualification, and many of these aretop-ranked researchers headhunted fromuniversities. The quantity and quality of thebanks research is consistently high.

    But this more analytical aspect of the

    banks work has always been overshadowedby its lending arm known as operations which has generally considered research to bea function of lending, rather than an activityin its own right. In 1987, half of the researchstaff were sent to work in operations.

    This tension between the research andlending wings remains, and is one of severalchallenges that will need to be overcome ifthe new strategy is to bear fruit. In particular,the need for a new department for science isbeing questioned by some who do not wantto see science confined to a ghetto and thinkit should be part of the lending portfolio ofall of the banks departments.

    Some operations staff have yet to be con-

    vinced of the merits of raising the banksresearch profile or funding research in devel-oping countries. They believe that moreattention should be paid to conventionalinfrastructure needs in poorer countrieswhich, because of low credit ratings, willhave little access to private capital.

    The reaction from developing countrieswill be an important test of the new strategy.The richer countries of southeast Asia, LatinAmerica, North Africa and the Middle Eastare likely to be more receptive than poorercountries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa,where the bank is not popular, and wherealmost 50 per cent of bank-assisted projectshave failed during this decade. Ehsan Masood

    news analysis

    NATURE | VOL 397 | 7 JANUARY 1999 | 7

    [WASHINGTON] International collaborationhas never been a higher priority for the Unit-ed States, if public pronouncements by theleaders of the scientific establishment areanything to go by.

    Bruce Alberts, president of the NationalAcademy of Sciences, has made collaborationwith the developing world one of his top twopriorities (the other being science educationin schools). A generous sharing of knowl-edge resources by our nations scientists andengineers can improve the lives of those whoare most in need around the globe, he toldthe academys annual meeting last April.

    Harold Varmus, director of the NationalInstitutes of Health (NIH), has placed newemphasis in the past year on the need for theNIH to confront global health problems,such as malaria and African strains of AIDS.

    And Rita Colwell, the new director of theNational Science Foundation (NSF), hasspent much of her first few months in officetravelling abroad, talking in particular abouther collaborative experiences in choleraresearch (see Nature 396, 202; 1998).

    But critics say there is more talk aboutsuch collaboration than action. And, by rais-ing the issue now, these three scientific lead-ers are perhaps acknowledging that, inpractice, the large and well-funded US scien-tific community has never been more isolat-ed from the rest of the world.

    Weve moved a long way backwards inthe past 40 years, says Alberts, adding that anew generation of researchers has littleknowledge about the opportunities and chal-lenges of working with scientists abroad.The young people have enormous potentialinterest in such research, but they dont seehow to do it, he says.

    Of the $75 billion that the US governmentwill spend on research and development thisyear a quarter of it on basic research only a small fraction will involve collabora-tion with foreigners. The NIH, the science

    agency least constrained in spending moneyabroad, says it will spend $200 million (1.5 percent of its budget) on international projects.

    The international division of the NSF willspend $20 million, although other activitiesat the agency involving foreign partners willcost ten times as much. They get crumbsfrom the table, mutters an internationalofficial at one leading US scientific society.

    Some critics go further in taunting the UStrack record in supporting international col-laboration in science. In the current issue ofthe journal Issues in Science and Technology,Congressman George Brown (Democrat,California) and Daniel Sarewitz of ColumbiaUniversitys science policy unit write thatalthough there was little evidence that[international science and technology agree-ments] have led to significant scientific part-

    nerships, there is plenty of evidence that theysupport a healthy bureaucratic infrastruc-ture in the US government.

    Critics also contend that the internationaldivision at NSF and the Fogarty Internation-al Center, which performs an analogousfunction at the NIH, have a marginal impacton the powerful directorates and institutesthat dominate the two agencies.

    One man planning to change that is Ger-ald Keusch, a biologist with a strong trackrecord in researching infectious diseases inAfrica, who was picked by Varmus last Sep-tember to direct the Fogarty centre. Keuschsays Varmus left him in no doubt that theNIH is ready to pursue a global public healthagenda which is something different fromNIHs agenda in the past. In the coming year,the centres budget will grow by 25 per cent,to $35 million, although it will remain thesmallest budget of any NIH institute.

    The Fogarty centre has been shifting itscollaborative emphasis from work with sci-entists in developed countries to work indeveloping countries and the former Sovietbloc. Between 1987 and 1996, the proportionof its spending on the latter two groups dou-bled, to more than 40 per cent of the total.

    Keusch expects this trend to continue.My goal is to steadily focus on the develop-ing and transitional countries where needsare greatest, he says. He adds that othermechanisms exist to support collaborationbetween developed countries.

    Keusch is the first director of the centre toalso be appointed associate director at theNIH at the recommendation of an exter-nal study into Fogartys effectiveness. Hehopes that this, together with his own scien-tific relationship with the directors of severalpowerful NIH institutes, will enable him toincrease the centres influence.

    He is also working to improve relationswith the World Health Organization, theWorld Bank and the US Agency for Inter-

    US spirit is willing, but funds are still weak

    Worldwide prescription: the NIH is set to pursue aglobal public health agenda for the first time.








  • 1999 Macmillan Magazines Ltd

    national Development, and pledges to trackmore effectively what NIH really spends oninternational work. The $200 million, hesays, is only the part that is easily tracked.There are other expenditures that arentincluded.

    Under Alberts presidency, the NationalAcademy of Sciences has pursued a phalanxof initiatives to foster collaboration withdeveloping countries. These include a studywith China and India into the impact of pop-ulation growth on land use, to be publishedin February, and a major conference on sus-tainability planned for May 2000 in Tokyo.

    John Boright, director of internationalaffairs at the academy, says it is also workingto bring together groups of young scientistswith common interests. But he does not havethe money to do this on a significant scale.Were planting some seeds, but planting thewhole field is a different story, Boright says.

    Many scientists assume that isolationistsin the Congress are the main obstacle to sub-stantial US investment in international sci-ence. But congressional staff say the scientificagencies have not asked for more money forinternational work.

    The agencies use Congress as a bogey-

    man, says one staffer, who favours spendingon international collaboration. All the majorscientific collaborative programmes beganunder President Reagan, when money wastight. Now that the moneys fine, they dontwant to do anything with people overseas.

    But some top scientists, at least, beg todiffer. The opportunities for the UnitedStates to play a role [in the developing world]are enormous, says Sherwood Rowland, for-eign secretary of the academy. The scientificcommunity is willing to do it, but there isntsufficient funding. And that reflects thepolitical will of the country. Colin Macilwain

    [MUNICH] Five years ago, research wasalmost a dirty word in development aid cir-cles, says Barend Mons, a senior adviser tothe Dutch research organization NWO.Today, however, research is no longer consid-ered a luxury toy for rich countries, but afundamental component of economic suc-cess in all countries.

    The change represents a major shift inEuropean attitudes towards Third World aidin the past few years. Research has been a sig-nificant beneficiary.

    In June 1997, the European UnionsCouncil of Development Ministers passed aresolution acknowledging the potentiallyimportant role of research and technology inachieving the objectives of the EUs develop-ment policy. It stressed the strategic rolethat research could play in enhancing sus-tainable development.

    This has committed the European Com-mission, the EUs executive arm, to findingnew ways of boosting the amount of researchit supports in developing countries andensuring that support is effective.

    Until relatively recently, most of this sup-port took the form of researcher-initiatedprojects within the five-year Frameworkresearch programmes. The