» Can biotechnology boost development in post-conflict situations?
30.08.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

Can biotechnology boost development in post-conflict situations?

© Claudio Divizia/ shutterstock.com Light photomicrograph of a cotton stem cross section seen through a microscope

In the fast-moving world of science, biotechnology is a particularly hot topic. It holds great promise in fields as diverse as health and agriculture, but as always in research, harnessing that potential – and keeping the pace – takes strategy and investments. Some countries, those that could afford it, have caught early on, as demonstrated by the profusion of research institutes and university departments focusing on biotechnology in developed countries, alongside successful pharmaceutical and agriculture-based industries. But not all countries benefit fully from this promising field of research.

Bio-products in agriculture and medicine have been reaching the market for decades, generating revenues valued in billions. The 17th European Congress on Biotechnology recently concluded that a new strategy is needed to assess and balance their integration in the global economy. However, not all countries benefit from biotechnology. Research in emerging fields is considered a luxury to be done in times of peace and prosperity. Too often, the potential of scientific research for development is overlooked, especially in countries recovering from conflict.

When 132 African researchers specializing in life and medical sciences, representing 30 countries in Africa, came together last year during the UNESCO-Merck Africa Research Summit to discuss ways to improve life sciences research in their respective countries, similar conclusions arose from diverse contexts. Funding was identified as an issue, and public / private partnerships encouraged – in fact the meeting was organized by UNESCO together with a pharmaceutical company, the Merck Group. But above all, they called for more autonomy in how they direct their research and what they should work on.  

The Biotechnology Research Centre (BTRC) in Libya provides an example of resilience and vision on both counts. UNESCO played an important role in supporting its establishment in 2005, in terms of infrastructure, equipment and training of Libyan researchers at the Masters level outside Libya. However, recent events ground the implementation of the project to a halt. The Arab Spring has left a big imprint on the Libyan economy, with growth contracting by 11.6% after 2008*. Yet the BTRC is now kicking off again, with the 1st meeting of its International Scientific Advisory Board in Tunis on 30 and 31st of August. The Advisory Board will assess the scientific outputs of the BTRC and the quality of its principle investigators and post-doctoral fellows. The international body will work in close collaboration with the local scientific advisory committee to provide objective advice on the Centre’s specific needs. This is a positive step towards conducting scientific research at the highest level in difficult conditions, combining local autonomy and international support.

The Centre could have a positive impact on the national economy as a whole, especially in the fields of agriculture and medicine, by bringing new ways of tackling local problems and by fostering entrepreneurship in biotechnology at the local level. UNESCO looks forward to this exciting new phase in the life of this centre.  




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