Carretera Nacional Hoyo de la Puerta Baruta
Instituto de Estudios Avanzados, IDEA
Edificio Bolivar, Planta Baja Venezuela
Tel.: (58-2) 9621644/9621605
Fax: (58-2) 9621120
It is well known that the number of researchers in Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean is too small to cope with the needs of research and to successfully confront the number of short and long-term problems.
The United Nations University created its Biotechnology Program for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNU/BIOLAC, and the results of the efforts aiming to the promotion of a shared sense of direction within the region´s scientific community are presented and discussed herein.
Aiming towards the promotion of international understanding, the United Nations sponsored the creation of an academic institution that would help developing countries in their struggle for a better and more peaceful life.
Under the initiative of the Secretary General at that time, Mr. U. Thant, The United Nations University, UNU, was created in 1973, beginning its activities in 1975. In 1988, under the Rectorship of Prof. Heitor Gurgulino de Souza, with the income of two out of the seven million dollars paid from the ten million dollars pledged by the Venezuelan Government to the Universities Endowment Fund, the UNU created the Biotechnology Program for Latin America and the Caribbean, UNU/BIOLAC. Since then, it has received additional contributions from the Governments of Canada and Peru. With those limited resources, basically the income of the two million dollars pledged by the Venezuelan Government the UNU/BIOLAC Program has been concentrating on three areas recommended by its Scientific Advisory Committee. These are Diagnostics and Vaccines for Human and Animal Disease, Plant Genetics Engineering, and Microorganisms of Industrial Interest.
The goal of the UNU/BIOLAC Program is essentially to promote through its actions, a shared sense of direction that might have an impact on intellectual development in the region, specifically in Biotechnology. The Program’s strategy is to develop human resources in the scientific community with the collaboration of well known scientists and institutes already established in the region and enlarge the capacity of scientific research in the region by integrating those human resources in research networks.
The Program has a General Coordinator located in Caracas, Venezuela, who is assisted by the Scientific Coordinators of the Research Networks, and two Associated Experts. It is important to stress that the overheads expenditure of the Program only reaches 10% of its budget, approximately 57% goes into training and fellowships leaving the rest for the research activities of the Networks.Development of human resources
The UNU/BIOLAC Program began its activities in 1989, developing human resources in the region by granting short term fellowships, supporting high level academic courses with the collaboration of Centers of Excellence in the region, and by establishing research networks, see Table 1.
The scheme intends to strengthen the region’s academic institutions, and to assist the career development of scholars and scientists, particularly young researchers. It also aims to promote an understanding of complex problems in their global context, the development of analytical skills and the ability to conduct and direct research.
The results presented here are those found in the Program’s data bank and covers the eight year period since the Program was created, including all the participants of the training fellowships and courses sponsored by the Program.Training courses
The Program uses the human resources already established in the region, to improve the scientific skills of others that would directly benefit from the Program by taking advantage of the training programs and courses offered.
To run the highly specialized courses, many institutions were visited in order to identify qualified academic institutions that were willing to serve as centers for the Program in order to fulfil its task in the region.
The Program annually offers an average of five international two-week training courses. The support given to each course includes the support of international participants, covering 75% of the register.
During a seven-year period, forty courses were held in the region sponsored by UNU/BIOLAC. Table 2 shows the countries that hosted those 40 courses.
Table 3 shows the list of all the courses lectured over the seven-year period.Fellowships
In order to accomplish its goals, the Program uses the same methods as other international academic institutions that grant fellowships. The candidates for a short-term training fellowship have to submit a form stating their scientific background including research experience and their areas of interest, giving reasons why they are interested in the Program. In addition, the applicant has to submit a supporting letter from the institution where he or she is currently working. This is to guarantee that the institution is interested in training the candidate and to insure that he or she is an active employed scientist. Finally, the candidate has to be accepted by the laboratory where the training will take place. This avoids the possibility of converting the Program into a placement office. Scientists have discovered that there are many possibilities for collaborative projects that can be developed within Latin America and the Caribbean.
Whenever possible, we interview the candidates at their working place in order to have a closer look at their capacity and interest. In most cases we complete the data with what we call a "Site Visit Report", which allows us to focus our attention in the institution where the candidate is actually working. By doing so, we have a better knowledge of the institutional capacities in the region.
UNU/BIOLAC tries to select individuals particularly from key institutions in order to strengthen their capacities in the Program’s priority areas. The fellowships are intended for individuals who already have a strong background in basic biological sciences, and have an advanced university degree, but who lack specific practical experience in biotechnological techniques.
The fellowships last for a minimum of three and a maximum of twelve months. UNU/BIOLAC provides a monthly stipend for the fellow, the round trip air ticket, travel accident and sickness insurance, and the eventual bench fees for the training institution.
Table 4 shows the total number of fellows benefited from UNU/BIOLAC. A striking feature is that 62% of them are women. This suggests that, as opposed to long term academic fellowships, short-term training periods are considered by women as a positive step towards advancement.
The participation of women not only corresponds to the use of short-term training fellowships, they are also a very active and important part of the Networks. We are proud to say that the participation of women in the UNU/BIOLAC Program activities is as important as that of men.
Politics are not involved in the process of granting a fellowship. This is clear when we observe that countries with different political environments, such as Cuba and Peru with 21 and 24 fellowships respectively, have taken almost as much advantage of offered fellowships as Venezuela the host country, where 30 fellowships have been granted. The number of granted fellowships per country depends solely on the desire of the applicant and the human resource policy of each institute from which the postulants come from.
Only one fellowship has been granted to the English speaking Caribbean, Barbados. This suggests that, together with the possible language barrier, there is an old custom in the scientific community of those countries to train their scientists within the British Commonwealth, ignoring the possibilities that exists in Spanish speaking regions.
Keeping in mind that UNU/BIOLAC follows the same SOUTH-SOUTH cooperation framework of the University, we can observe in Table 5 that the new trend offered by the Program of training scientists for short periods of time within the region, has been accepted by all countries, developed or underdeveloped.
Table 6 shows the countries where training have taken place. Many of the granted fellowships have been used to learn new research techniques in those institutions where frontier science is made, while others have been employed to carry out collaborative projects in laboratories with which scientific linkages have become a reality. This means that one of the Program’s objectives, to strengthen institutional capacities, has been fulfilled.Integration of human resources
The University has in its charter the mandate to promote collaborative work among scientists in the developing world. As a result, the UNU/BIOLAC Program provides the infrastructure for Regional Networks involving scientists and their laboratories in order to improve the contact and sharing of information among institutions in the region.
With the support of the Canadian Government, the UNU organized a Network of Researchers in Brucellosis which, after UNU/BIOLAC´s creation in 1988, became part of the Program. This was so successful that in 1996 another Network of researchers was organized. This time the target was Tuberculosis. If funds are made available, we plan to organize a Network for each of the Program’s concentration areas.
Both Networks, under the direction of a Scientific Coordinator, organize annual workshops for the members and a course in specific topics of the research interest of the Network. Members of the Networks execute collaborative research projects that in many cases are financed by international funding agencies. In addition the two research networks have an active network of electronic communication that interconnects its members and makes available recent relevant bibliographic information.The Brucellosis Research Network
Brucellosis is a zoonosis that has become a public health problem in several countries in the region, whose economies have been affected by the appearance of the disease. In 1985 the Brucellosis Network was created through the initiative of The United Nations University, UNU, and with the support of Canadian Institutions such as the International Development and Research Center (IDRC), and the Government of Canada. When UNU/BIOLAC was created, this network was incorporated into the activities of the Program.
The Network, as shown in Table 7, is formed by researchers from the region, and includes the United States and Canada. Its objectives include the improvement of diagnostic tools, the identification of candidate molecules for vaccines or diagnosis, and the development of mutant strains of Brucella abortus that might be evaluated in protection studies.
The Brucellosis Network carries out a very active scientific program. The network has already published a book with the results of their first works and the publication of their second book is scheduled for the next future.The Tuberculosis Research Network
Socio-economic changes occurring in recent years in Latin America and the Caribbean, with consequent diminished standards of living, have contributed to the resurgence of a disease that appeared to be on its way to eradication: tuberculosis. It is believed that a third of the worlds population is infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, leading to over 600,000 cases and 125,000 deaths per year in Latin America, and more than 3,000,000 deaths worldwide, mostly in developing countries. This disease, frequently associated with AIDS, has become increasingly dangerous because of the emergence of drug resistant strains.
The Tuberculosis Research Network, RELACTB, has the active collaboration of researchers from 12 countries of the region, as shown in Table 8. Invited scientists from Belgium, Canada, France, The Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain are also participating. This network studies the genetics and molecular biology of the mycobacterium, mechanisms of resistance, geographical distribution of strains within the region, use of techniques from molecular biology in diagnosis and development of simpler methods of cultivation in non-conventional mediums.
With the support of UNU/BIOLAC, RELACTB organizes advanced courses for young researchers, in order to disseminate new biotechnology for the study of this disease. It publishes an electronic bulletin, "RELACTBulletin" which describes the activities of its members.Final comments
It is well known that the number of researchers in Latin America and the Caribbean is too small to cope with the needs of research and to successfully confront the number of short and long-term problems. In order to face these problems, the recommendations given are for the long run, and activities such as those carried out by UNU/BIOLAC play a very important role in the updating, recycling and permanent interchange of scientists in the region.
The Program has proven to be an important tool in preventing scientists from emigrating, as it allows the creation of new horizons for cooperative projects, thus producing favorable conditions for research.
In only seven years of work, the results produced by UNU/BIOLAC support the hypothesis of a shared sense of direction within the region’s scientific community. This, combined with the efforts of well established scientists in the region, is creating a new and stronger community which is working towards solving the problems of the current crisis and meeting the challenges of the near future.
This initiative demonstrates that entities such as UNU/BIOLAC, regardless of their limited financial resources, through their encouraging policy of supporting human resource improvement, can be successfully used by developing countries for their own benefit.
In order to guarantee the sustainability of scientific and technological developments in all countries of the region, it is important to encourage young scientists to strengthen their professional background. Therefore, it is desirable that other non-governmental organizations support efforts such as those made by UNU/BIOLAC.Acknowledgments
Thanks are due to Dr. Abraham Besrat, Vice-Rector of UNU; to Dr. Jacobus de Waard, Dr. Luis Guevara, Associate Experts, Ad Hoc, to UNU/BIOLAC, and Dr. Maria S. Tapia de Daza, for their help in the discussion, criticisms and suggestions; and to Mrs. Wilma James, Academic Officer Assistant at UNU for her support.
Annual Report (1989), (1990), (1991), (1992), (1993), (1994), (1995), (1996), and (1997). The United Nations University.
Training and Fellowship Programme Former Fellows Directory (1988-1992) and List of Training Workshop Participants (1983-1992). The United Nations University
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