At a time when globally, we share many common concerns, scientists are faced with the challenge to offset the damaging effects of food shortage, climate change and new and re-emerging diseases. Starvation and famine are a reality in certain countries today, due in part to conflict and resultant displacement of large populations but also as a result of other factors like the increasing effects of climate change like droughts and desertification. These effects are made worse by the considerable impact of diseases such as HIV and AIDS on vulnerable populations, threatening livelihoods and survival. Pollution due to oil spills, untreated industrial and household waste, nuclear waste, etc. is damaging the environment including potable water supplies. Finding solutions that are friendly to the environment, affordable and accessible to the majority is a priority. Biotechnology provides potential solutions to address some of these problems and has been identified as one of the priority areas for many institutions like NEPAD.
Biotechnology is the term given to the use of plants, animals, micro-organisms and biological processes to achieve advancement in the areas of industry, medicine and agriculture. It is the utilization of living organisms to promote development for the benefit of mankind. From vaccines and an improvement in methodologies/techniques for diagnosis/identifying and combating diseases, the protection and preservation of biodiversity, increased food production and higher crop yields to decontamination of polluted environments, biotechnology has already had a positive impact on our lives and helped to improve the quality of life for all.
The Biotechnology programme at UNESCO aims at strengthening capacity for research in this field. It is conceivable that the results of such research can serve to attain some of the national developmental goals and contribute to socio-economic growth. Increasingly the thrust of the programmes are on building hubs of expertise to promote knowledge transfer and information exchange in this field, at the global level, through networking and utilizing existing resources at the regional level. One of the mediums used for knowledge transfer are the Centres of Excellence. An example of these are the Microbial Resources Centres (MIRCEN). These are academic and research institutes worldwide which network in a global collaborative effort to harness through the vehicle of international scientific co-operation, microbiological research and biotechnological applications for the benefit of humankind. This is complimented by the five Biotechnology Education and Training Centres (BETCENs), one in each region, which provide research and training opportunities in plant and marine biotechnology. UNESCO Chairs also provide platforms for research and training and North-South collaboration. These efforts are increasingly being strengthened through creation of Category II Centres (e.g. in India). These have as their specific focus, the strengthening of human and institutional capacity at the national and regional levels. Knowledge dissemination is also achieved by facilitating access to peer reviewed journals through which new discoveries in the field could be easily diffused. Support to several high-level journals and outreach programmes provides this vital resource to scientists especially from the developing and least developed countries.