Aside from stamp-collectors and trivial-pursuit buffs, who knows muchabout the Himalayan mountain Kingdom of Bhutan? One who does isEdgar DaSilva, who guides the United Nations Educational, Scientificand Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) worldwide network ofMicrobial Resource Centers."We know that there's a beautiful plant tissue-culture laboratory inBhutan. How many people would know that?" DaSilva told BioWorldToday. "Most of the genetic resources lie in the Third World, althoughthe technology and processes reside in the First World. And many ofthe world's developing countries, once importers, are now exporters. "Marine microbiologist Rita Colwell chairs the center's directors'council, representing a network of some 26 UNESCO-supportedlaboratories around the world. She is also president of the University ofMaryland Biotechnology Institute, College Park, Md."The focus of UNESCO has been very strongly on third worldbiotechnology needs and uses," Colwell told BioWorld Today. She saidthat the U.S. government, which withdrew from UNESCO in 1984(followed by the U.K. a year later) should return to the world body'sfold as soon as possible.She expressed these feelings in the current issue of Science (Aug. 19)in an editorial headed "Back to the Future with UNESCO." It explainsthe reasons that led Washington to secede from the organization adecade ago, and those that should compel its early return.Actually, the Clinton administration proposes to make that reentry infiscal 1996."The cost for the U.S. to return to UNESCO is expected to be about$65 million in annual dues," Colwell wrote, "[and] would result in asignificant increase in funding of its programs."Examples she cited of "cost-effective, value-for-money programs"include the center and the activities in plant and aquaticbiotechnologies.Colwell added, "Reentry and active participation by scientists in theU.K. and the U.S. would reinforce the intellectual resources ofUNESCO at precisely the time the organization requires strengtheningin areas such as biodiversity and biotechnology."But what would those $65 million per annum buy for thebiotechnology industry in the U.S.?"Access to an extraordinary gene pool that you would not otherwisehave," she answered, plus "production-scale access to discovery of newenzymes and enzymatic processes." Example: "an unusual enzyme inone of the catalytic steps of sugar cane degradation."It's a resource that hasn't been tapped," Colwell went on, "and with alittle more investment could be extraordinarily productive, not just forthe developing countries but for biotech companies around the world."Echoing DaSilva's import-export observation, Colwell said, "It'scritically important that we form genuine partnerships with developingcountries, because they are moving rapidly to becoming newlyindustrialized countries." Example: "Korea has exploded [in biotech].Singapore is doing some extraordinarily good work in the field.Thailand is very much involved in biotechnology, with a nationalinitiative, which formally collaborates with my own institute."Colwell warns the biotechnology industry, "It's either join up and bepartners, or find ourselves on the losing end of competition. It's thatsimple."DaSilva emphasized that beyond screening new medicinal substrates inthe mangrove forests of the Third World, the primary resource lies inthe potential of that world's brain power." He observed that HarvardUniversity and Massachusetts Institute of Technology willingly accepta lot of foreign students, "who are transmitters of technology, part ofthe tech transfer process "between the have and have-not nations. Andbiotechnology," he emphasized, "is one of the very few disciplines thatwill reduce the gap."DaSilva concluded: "So the biotechnology companies, when looking totheir future research staffing, would do well to encourage third worldstudents, and one way to do that is through UNESCO."Plant molecular biologist Indra Vasil of the University of Florida,Gainesville, is virtually a one-man surrogate for U.S. membership inUNESCO."I have been concerned for many years," Vasil told BioWorld Today,"that much of the work in my field has been done in North America,Western Europe and Japan. For us, of course, this is very good, butbasically it's a luxury. In the developing countries, where there is muchneed for this type of research, and its application can have the mostimpact, there's almost nothing going on."So he persuaded UNESCO's director general to set up and fund anBiotechnology Action Council chaired by Vasil. This internationalcommittee of eight scientist (among them Rita Colwell) restricts itselfto plant and aquatic projects. Among these:u A fellowship program that so far has sent some 200 scientists from 80countries to take three-months of training at any laboratory of theirchoice;u Co-sponsorship of international training courses, such as one justended in Hungary, attended by 45 European participants from easternand southern Europe;u Free distribution of the best laboratory manuals;u Funding in the very near future of a two-week training course inPretoria, including 35 attendees from southern Africa. "South Africahas splendid scientists and facilities," Vasil observed, "but they'vebeen out of the loop for all these years."u Also imminent, a training center at Bethlehem University forPalestinian students from the West Bank and the Gaza strip."Its my feeling that the U.S. policy of giving aid the way the WorldBank does, by handing out dollars, hasn't worked. Countries whichreceived huge amounts of aid get used to these handouts, and still havethe same problems."Providing training to just one generation of scientists, we can makethese countries self-sufficient," he said. "They can then train the nextgeneration." n
-- David N. Leff Science Editor
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