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University of Michigan School of Natural Resources

Why the world needs more scientists

Scientific research is the engine that drives health advances. If future world leaders would keep that simple concept in mind when making decisions about where and how to invest their resources, the health of humankind would improve substantially over the next 50 years and beyond.

Some may question the value of this science-centric perspective for global health. Yet I am convinced that rigorous, well-designed research is essential not only for the discovery of new ways to detect, treat, and prevent disease, but also for the most efficient development and cost-effective dissemination of such advances to the world's poorest peoples. The remarkable progress made in genomics, bioengineering, and many other scientific fields over the past decade has given rise to innovative technologies now being used to help many different populations in many different settings.

For instance, some of the technologies that spurred the molecular biology revolution are now being put to work in developing countries to diagnose diseases more swiftly and accurately. These "point-of-care" diagnostics include a DNA-amplification test that makes it possible to diagnose tuberculosis and detect drug resistance within 90 minutes. This means patients can start taking effective drugs on the same day they are tested, rather than waiting several months for traditional lab results or starting costly, ineffective therapy that must be changed if their tuberculosis strain proves to be drug-resistant. If deployed globally, this test would save an estimated 15 million lives by 2050.

On the near horizon, mobile health technology is already beginning to realize its potential to improve medical care in poor and remote areas. Researchers have developed a quarter-sized, lensless microscope that, when connected to a mobile phone, can beam high-quality images of cells and microbes halfway around the globe to computers that can automatically interpret the images. An even more affordable option is a paper microscope that costs about 50 cents to produce and requires no power supply. Bioengineers  designed this "use and throw away" device, which uses a spherical glass micro-lens to magnify samples up to 2,000-fold, specifically to address the challenge of quickly and accurately diagnosing malaria and other parasitic diseases in low-resource settings.

We need far more young creative minds to tap into the power of science to explore questions of vital importance to human health

Science-based technology is also critical to disease prevention. Vaccines have made possible some of our greatest advances in global health, but we must keep scientific knowledge moving forward  if we are to create the next generation of vaccines — vaccines capable of preventing HIV infection, malaria, and other equally formidable foes. For example, thanks to basic research that expanded understanding of the influenza virus, I am confident that a "universal flu vaccine" will be developed in the next decade that will provide long-term protection against multiple flu strains, effectively disarming the threat of future worldwide flu epidemics.

While infectious diseases remain a significant problem, low-income countries face many other serious health challenges. In fact, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other noncommunicable diseases are now among the fastest-growing causes of death and disability in the developing world. It will take creative research to identify and implement the right tools to tackle this daunting — and potentially very costly — array of diseases in resource-poor countries. High on this agenda must be research to develop and test interventions that will significantly reduce smoking rates.

To succeed, we will need the most forward-thinking minds in all parts of the world to work together in highly innovative ways. One such endeavor is the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative, in which the US National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust are supporting population-based studies in Africa of common chronic disorders as well as infectious diseases. This initiative is enabling African researchers to take advantage of new approaches to understand genetic and nongenetic factors that contribute to risk of illness. Not only will this project help Africans, but, because Africa is the cradle of humanity, what is learned about genetic variation and disease on that continent will also have an impact on the health of populations around the globe.

Francis Collins testifies on Capitol Hill about human embryonic stem cell research. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Indeed, scientific knowledge does not travel only from developed countries to low-income countries — it is a two-way street from which the entire world stands to benefit. Recently, some of the most innovative and cost-effective advances have arisen from research reflecting the needs and ideas of people in poorer countries. From India alone have come high-performance prosthetic knee joints for amputees that cost only $20, lower-cost intraocular lenses for cataract surgery, and handheld devices that have cut the cost of electrocardiograms to $1.

As encouraging as these early successes may be, we cannot afford complacency. Much remains to be done if we want people in every corner of the world to be enjoying longer, healthier lives 50 years from now. We need far more young creative minds — be they in Boston or Botswana, Beijing or Bangladesh — to tap into the power of science to explore questions of vital importance to human health. Together, the energy and vision of a robust global scientific community can make a profound difference in one of humanity's noblest goals: improving the health of all the world's peoples.


Reprinted from To Save Humanity: What Matters Most for a Healthy Future edited by Julio Frenk and Steven J. Hoffman, with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.
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