Science on a shoestring

Researchers in lower-income countries face many hurdles


Scientists in Namibia are looking for new medicines to kill harmful microbes. They hope to find bacteria in termite mounds that make natural germ-killing chemicals.

Johannes Shiilamo

In January, Kathleen Wang moved from the United States to Africa. Wang is a biologist who studies DNA. It carries encoded instructions that tells cells what to do. She wanted to know how genetic differences may be linked to disease in kidneys, those organs that filter wastes from the blood. Scientists hadn’t studied these links much in people outside of Europe or the United States.

Wang started working in western Africa. Her lab was at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Accra is a modern city, and the institute had advanced equipment. The other scientists were very skilled. Still, Wang ran into problems.

“The issue wasn’t lack of passion or scientific knowledge,” she says. “The issue was just getting supplies.”

Wang needed a chemical called bisacrylamide (Bis-ah-KRIL-uh-myde). This chemical is used in experiments to identify specific DNA fragments in a sample, such as a patient’s blood. In the United States, Wang could order a bottle for about $100. She’d have it in about two days, so she never worried about running out.

But in Ghana, things were different. The last time the institute had ordered bisacrylamide, a bottle cost about $1,000. And it had taken half a year to arrive.

Part of the reason was that the chemical was made in the United States. It cost a lot to ship it to Ghana. Also, researchers had to buy most supplies through an African company instead of ordering directly from the American manufacturer. The African company charged high prices.

Wang had to figure out a solution. The institute did not have enough of the chemical for her experiments. She faced a dilemma. “It’s a challenge to get what you need,” she says. This type of roadblock “really delays progress.”

Wang has run into a hurdle that scientists around much of the world deal with daily. In rich nations, such as the United States, conducting research is much easier. But many countries don’t have as much money. These nations are called low-income and middle-income countries.

In many of them, governments don’t spend much money on scientific research. Labs often lack equipment. Or researchers may have problems getting chemicals to run experiments. These chemicals are called reagents (Ree-AY-jintz).

“If I’m in the United States, and in the night I dream about an experiment, the next day or in the next 48 hours I can get the reagents and test my idea,” says Abdoulaye Djimdé. He studies the genes in organisms called parasites. Djimdé works at the University of Science, Techniques and Technologies of Bamako in Mali, another country in western Africa. “If I have the same dream in Africa, I have to wait three months before I can get everything in place to test that same idea.”

Those aren’t the only problems. In some areas, the internet is unreliable or difficult to access. That makes it harder to communicate with other scientists around the world to get data.

Some universities can’t afford subscriptions to journals where scientists publish results. Researchers who don’t read these journals risk repeating what someone else has already done.

The countries with the least money desperately need more scientific research. They face big problems. In some areas, people have diseases that require new treatments. Or farmers can’t grow enough nutritious food. Or nations need to protect the animals and plants that roam their lands.

Luc Soete is an economist, a researcher who studies issues related to money. He works at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. It is “the ultimate paradox,” he notes. The countries that might benefit most from science and research, he says, are the countries where it’s most difficult to do science and research.

Slowly, people are finding solutions. Rich countries are giving money or sending equipment to aid science in low- and middle-income nations. Some lower-income countries are funneling more of their funds toward research. And new programs are helping scientists in these areas take charge of their projects.

A giant gap

The difference between the money for research in low- and high-income countries is huge. Recent data show this gap.

Soete’s team published a report on science around the world in 2015. These researchers studied how much money governments and companies spent on research in each country. The world’s richest countries contain 18 percent of the world’s people. But nearly 70 percent of global spending on research happens in these wealthy nations. And they have 64 percent of the world’s researchers.

In contrast, 12 percent of the world’s population lives in low-income countries. But only 0.3 percent of global research dollars are spent there. And a mere 1 percent of all researchers live in these nations.

Rasha Osman is a computer scientist in Sudan, a country in northern Africa. She has struggled to get enough money to pay for her research.
Suhaib Elamin

Some lower-income countries devote little money to training new scientists and engineers. To become a top researcher, you usually need to complete a difficult set of studies that result in a PhD. In rich nations, PhD students typically earn a small salary. It’s enough money for basic needs.

That’s not true, however, in some lower-income countries. Universities may not pay their PhD students. Aspiring researchers then have to work full-time and study in their spare hours. They can’t quit their jobs to focus on PhDs because they won’t have enough money to live on. As a result, a lot of students don’t complete their PhD or don’t produce high-quality research.

“You’re set up to fail from the beginning,” says Rasha Osman. She is a computer scientist at the University of Khartoum in Sudan, a country in northern Africa. “The sad part is the best students aren’t able to do PhDs because they have to feed their families.”

New uses for old equipment

Some people in lower-income countries do finish PhDs and become researchers. But then they may face another problem: obtaining enough money to buy equipment. In some nations, “it’s a lot harder for them to get those kinds of instruments,” notes Melissa Wu.

She works at an organization called Seeding Labs in Boston, Mass. Wu is the senior vice president of operations. Her team is trying to solve this problem by sending scientific equipment to low- and middle-income countries. Researchers pay much less for these instruments than they would if they had bought them directly from manufacturers.

Seeding Labs finds instruments that scientists in rich countries no longer need. U.S. researchers might have equipment that still works, for instance, but they want to buy a new model with more features. They have so much money that they can frequently upgrade instruments.

“You can think of it like buying a car,” Wu says. Some people use the same car for 20 years. But a wealthy person might buy a new vehicle every year because they always want the best car. Then they get rid of their old one.

Researchers in rich countries sell or even throw out old equipment. Sometimes a retired instrument may “just sit in a closet,” Wu says. The researchers who own it no longer do anything with it.

Wu and her colleagues gather such equipment from universities, hospitals and companies. Then they send these instruments to researchers around the world. The team has shipped equipment to Peru, Kenya, Ukraine, Vietnam and many other countries. The shipments include basic supplies, such as beakers for holding liquids. The organization also sends high-tech equipment, such as mass spectrometers (Spek-TRAH-meh-turz). These instruments help scientists analyze chemical samples.

Vetjaera Haakuria (center) needed lab equipment to search for new drugs to treat infections. Instruments from a U.S. organization called Seeding Labs jumpstarted his project.
Seeding Labs

One scientist who received equipment is Vetjaera Haakuria. He studies drugs to treat infectious diseases. Haakuria works at the University of Namibia in Windhoek. Namibia is a country in southern Africa.

Haakuria was looking for medicines to kill harmful microbes. These drugs are called antibiotics. But some of them don’t work well on certain microbes anymore. Scientists are therefore seeking new options.

Haakuria wanted to search in an unusual place: giant piles of dirt. These mounds are made by insects called termites. The mounds are humid inside. Usually, microbes such as fungi grow in humid conditions. But Haakuria noticed that no fungi grew in termite mounds. He wondered if bacteria in the mounds were making chemicals that killed other microbes. Those chemicals might lead to medicines for people.

In 2016, Seeding Labs sent equipment to the University of Namibia. These instruments are allowing Haakuria to test his idea. He would need to bring samples from termite mounds to his lab. Then he would have to isolate bacteria from the soil. Finally, he’d need to check whether those bacteria had made any microbe-killing chemicals.

One item his team received was a sonicator (SAH-nih-kay-tor). This machine, which breaks up cells, helped him extract chemicals from bacteria. The lab also got water baths. These machines warm samples to a specific temperature. That let Haakuria analyze the chemicals’ activity.

Haakuria’s team collected dirt from termite mounds in the Namibian desert last year. The researchers are now analyzing the samples. The instruments from Seeding Labs are “absolutely crucial,” he now reports. “There was no way we would carry out this research without the equipment.”

Brain drain

Lack of money in lower-income countries causes another problem. These nations have many smart people who want to become scientists and engineers. Often, they move to wealthy countries to get their PhDs. If they returned home afterward, it will be harder for them to perform advanced research than if they remained in the rich countries. They also would be paid a lot less in their home country. No surprise, then, that many researchers don’t return home. This process is known as “brain drain.”

Once scientists have moved away, they are less likely to work on projects that solve problems in their home countries. This also means that children in lower-income nations have fewer researchers to serve as role models. That means fewer kids may be inspired to become scientists.

Darren C. Ong has seen this problem. He lives in Malaysia, a country in southeast Asia. A lot of Malaysian scientists and engineers have moved to rich countries such as Singapore, Australia and the United States. “We have very talented people leaving,” he says.

Ong is a mathematician. He got his PhD at Rice University in Houston, Texas. But he didn’t want to stay in the United States. “I felt that I wanted to be back [in Malaysia] eventually,” he says. “I felt I could make more of a difference here than I could in the States.”

He got a job at Xiamen University Malaysia in Sepang. As part of his work, he now teaches math classes. He wants to make sure that Malaysian students can get a great education in their home nation.

Returning home has brought him challenges, though. There are few mathematicians in Malaysia. Most people who work on the same topic as Ong live in the United States or Europe. That makes it difficult to talk to many people about his research. Chatting face-to-face with other mathematicians is important because it helps him discover interesting connections between ideas. “We are a bit isolated here,” he notes.

Ong attends conferences where mathematicians gather to discuss their work. But again, these meetings are often in the United States or Europe. These trips aren’t cheap. And it can take a long time to get to a conference. In April, Ong travelled to a math meeting in Portland, Ore. The trip took about 30 hours each way.

Still, Ong wants to stay in Malaysia. He thinks math is one area where lower-income countries can compete well against the rich ones. Mathematicians don’t need fancy equipment. “You only need a pencil and paper,” he says. “We can produce research that’s the level of the top in the world.”

A helping hand

A program called PEER is helping researchers in low- and middle-income nations, including those who return to their home countries. “They go back and there isn’t a lot of support,” says Dalal Najib. “PEER provides them with that support.” Najib is a senior program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Washington, D.C., which runs PEER. The program’s name stands for Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research.

Researchers in Brazil partnered with American scientists to study the Amazon rainforest. Here, Sabina Ribeiro (top right) and three community members measure the circumference of a tree.
Fernando Schimidt

The program supports researchers in low- and middle-income countries who pair up with scientists in the United States. The partners help each other, and PEER gives researchers in the lower-income nations money to complete their work.

One PEER participant is Sabina Ribeiro. A forest-management scientist in Brazil, she works at the Federal University of Acre in Rio Branco.

Her American partner is Stephen Perz at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He studies how humans affect the environment and how the environment responds to damage. Back in 2008 and 2009, Perz worked with biologists in South America. Those scientists visited sites in the Amazon rainforest. There they identified and measured trees at each site. The researchers were investigating whether a new highway nearby would lead to more forest damage.

In 2010, the region suffered a severe drought. Ribeiro wanted to know if certain tree species were more likely to die when faced with such dry conditions. That information could help her understand how the forest might change in the future. If some trees were more vulnerable, their loss could harm other organisms and the environment in many ways. For example, animals that depend on the trees for food or shelter might suffer.

With PEER’s support, Ribeiro’s team returned to the same plots in 2016 and 2017. The researchers measured more than 2,700 trees and noted which had died. The team will collect more data this year.

Faisal Hossain (right) has participated in research projects in south Asia. Here, he and local researchers in Bangladesh prepare to measure water flow and depth in the mighty Ganges River.
F. Hossain

Such partnerships help scientists in rich countries better understand the problems in low- and middle-income countries. American researchers can try to devise solutions to those issues. But they don’t always know exactly what is needed.

For example, Faisal Hossain has written computer software to help predict floods. He was born in Bangladesh in South Asia. Now he works on water research at the University of Washington in Seattle.

When Hossain showed his software to people in his home country, they told him it wouldn’t help. The software predicted river levels within a meter (about 1 yard). But the local people needed predictions within tens of centimeters (inches). Bangladesh is so flat that “even a 1-centimeter [0.4-inch] difference can mean a lot of flooding,” Hossain points out. “These things you only find out by talking to [local people].”

Taking the lead

Eventually, scientists in lower-income countries want to stand on their own. They need to control how research money is spent so that they can direct funds to what they see as the most important problems. And they want to train more people within their borders to gain scientific skills.

“They know best what the problems are,” Hossain says. “They should be driving the bus.”

A program in Africa is taking a step in that direction. It is called AESA. That stands for Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa.

AESA has received money from U.S. and British organizations. But AESA staff members play a big role in deciding how to spend that money for research in Africa. That’s important because these are the people who are familiar with the problems that scientists face at home.

Scientific research in Africa is critical to fight diseases such as malaria. Here, a researcher in Mali analyzes a blood sample from a malaria patient.
Dinkorma Ouologuem

“They are close to the ground,” Djimdé says. He is that researcher who studies parasites in Mali. Local people “understand probably better than somebody sitting in London [England] or in Seattle what it takes to conduct a research project in the bush in Africa.”

Djimdé got money from AESA to train African scientists in a skill called bioinformatics (BY-oh-in-for-MAT-iks). This skill involves using computer software to analyze biological data. For example, people could run a computer program to find patterns in DNA sequences.

Bioinformatics could help researchers study diseases in Africa. One common illness in Africa, malaria, killed more than 400,000 people there in 2016. Malaria is caused by parasites that mosquitoes carry. Djimdé wants to study the DNA of parasites, mosquitoes and human patients so he can better understand the disease.

But few people in Africa are bioinformatics experts. Djimdé often has to ask U.S. and European scientists to analyze his DNA data.

The AESA funding will help at least 40 African scientists now learn these skills. By the end of the program, Djimdé says, “we hope we will not need to run to Europe or America to seek help.”

Ultimately, researchers in low- and middle-income countries need enough support to solve problems on their own. These scientists are often more motivated and passionate because they have to deal with the issues they study every day. “That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck — if you can empower the local researchers to be in control of their destiny,” Hossain says.

electric lamp
Many parts of the world lack reliable electricity. A program called PEER helped fund an effort to bring solar power to households in a village in Tanzania, a nation in East Africa. Here, a Maasai woman holds an electric lamp. Dalal Najib
paperfuge toy
After seeing an expensive centrifuge used as a doorstop in a Ugandan medical lab, Manu Prakash knew there was a need for equipment that needed no electricity to work. So this bioengineer at Stanford University in California invented a “paperfuge” based on the toy whirligig seen here. Kurt Hickman/Stanford University
malaria parasite
Research in lower-income countries often takes longer than it does in the United States and Europe. One reason: Chemicals for lab work tend to be harder to obtain. Here, a researcher in Mali processes blood from a patient to isolate the parasite that causes the disease malaria. Dinkorma Ouologuem
school Mali
This scene, from Mali, may look familiar. But in many lower-income countries, schoolkids don’t have the same resources available to those in richer countries. United Nations Photo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
mom Bangladesh
This woman’s child is being treated at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where experts have developed treatments for diseases such as cholera. But as a lower-income nation, Bangladesh is at risk of “brain drain,” when scientists don’t return home after getting educated. Mark Garten/United Nations Photo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

More Stories from Science News Explores on Science & Society