Funding Science in the Developing World


Scientific brain drain from developing countries is an unfortunate but understandable problem. In many cases, the national scientific infrastructure is not strong enough to support innovative basic research projects. Low-income countries are hard pressed to dedicate significant funding to purchase state-of-the-art scientific equipment and to renovate laboratories to safely accommodate research involving pathogens or radioisotopes; often the reality is that water and electricity supplies are unreliable, with frequent interruption in service.

National budgets do not stretch far, so choices must be made. Scientific research is considered a luxury when basic needs of the population, such as clean water, adequate health care, and sanitation, are not adequately addressed. What few resources are available for research are allocated to applied research that yields more local and immediate benefit, rather than basic investigations, which may require years or even decades to reach fruition.

Many countries do not have a strong postdoctoral tradition. Students lack role models and mentors. Unable to find satisfying opportunities in their own countries, they migrate. Even students who intend to remain at home to conduct their research may need to go abroad to complete their training.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), a U.S. medical research organization supporting basic biomedical research and education, funds international scientific research through a competitive grants program. Through our international program, we identify scientific leaders abroad and make grants to them so they can conduct their research in their home countries. We support these leaders in situ not only to facilitate the application and dissemination of their knowledge but also to strengthen their research environments and to foster educational opportunities for local students.

International Research Scholars

Program grantees, known as International Research Scholars, are selected through a rigorous peer-review process. Because of the competitiveness of the process and the limited number of grants given, the awards are prestigious. Some scholars have used their awards to leverage additional research funding. The recognition they receive from becoming an HHMI international scholar garners additional recognition and provides new scientific opportunities.

HHMI International Research Scholar awards are designed to fill an important niche in many developing countries. The grants cover the usual research expenses, but they have a longer term--5 years--than most other grants available in developing countries. This longer term provides stability, allowing them to make commitments to support students and postdocs for the duration of their projects. It also allows scholars to pursue innovative projects that have higher potential payoff but also higher risk of failure, especially when measured over a shorter term.

Because one of the program goals is to improve the infrastructure within which scholars conduct their research, the program requires that, to support shared research resources, a portion of the grant be dedicated to the department the scholar works in.. This provides some equity within the recipient institution, and often scholars at the same institution combine these funds to purchase large equipment that individually they might not be able to afford.

Once scholars join the HHMI family, we look for ways to strengthen their network and to forge new linkages. We hold annual meetings to share scientific progress and encourage new collaborations. In host countries, we try to involve relevant government officials in these meetings, as well as the press, to highlight the value of this local science to policymakers and the public. For scholars in middle-income or developing countries, we provide free electronic journal subscriptions.

In addition, HHMI often supports 2-week laboratory courses, hosted by the scholars, to provide specialized hands-on training for graduate students, postdocs, and often young professors. These laboratory courses provide a unique opportunity for HHMI to partner with the scholar's institution to develop scientific networks. Ideally, these courses result in a regional network of scientists with common interests and expertise. This encourages scientific communication within the region, which is often a major barrier in the target countries. These new linkages mitigate the isolation experienced by these researchers.

The courses also give participants access to new, specialized techniques and equipment--purchased by the scholar's institution with HHMI support--that can be used at their home institutions. If this is impracticable, as it often is due to the need for sophisticated equipment, partner institutions are encouraged to make arrangements for students to return to the host institution, where the needed equipment is available. This encourages longer term collaborations, both individually and institutionally. These courses provide new international contacts for the host institution. The course director selects international experts within the relevant field to serve as course instructors, teaching alongside host country instructors. If the participants are sufficiently advanced in the course material, the syllabus can be designed to allow the conduct of actual hypothesis-driven research that addresses new questions. Ideally, this research could be published in scientific journals.

Two New Competitions

This month (May 2004), HHMI announced two new competitions for International Research Scholars. One competition is geographically defined, open to scientists in the Baltic states, Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine (BCEERU). The other is defined topically; it is open to scientists worldwide who work in infectious disease and parasitology research.

Applicants to both competitions should have publications in international English-language peer-reviewed scientific journals. The awards are intended for scientists whose research careers are developing, rather than those in the later phases of a distinguished career, and are free from major administrative duties. Citizens and legal permanent residents of the United States are ineligible. Five-year grants of $50,000 to $100,000 per year will be awarded.

Applicants for the BCEERU competition must hold a full-time appointment or have a pending appointment at a nonprofit research organization in any one of the following countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, or Ukraine. Eligible applicants must have made significant contributions in fundamental research on basic biological processes or disease mechanisms (including disease-oriented and patient-oriented research).

Applicants for the Infectious Diseases and Parasitology competition must hold a full-time appointment or have a pending appointment at a nonprofit scientific research organization in any country other than the United States or the United Kingdom. Eligible applicants must have made significant contributions to basic, disease-oriented, patient-oriented, or epidemiological research in infectious or parasitic diseases.

Program announcements, downloadable from the HHMI Web site, provide additional information regarding these competitions. Questions about specific competitions may be addressed to:

Application deadlines are 15 September 2004 for the Infectious Diseases and Parasitology competition and 17 November 2004 for the BCEERU competition.

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