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  • From Higgs to humanity: discoveries for the common good

Big scientific discoveries, such as the God particle, can have great Earthly potential that must be shared by the world's poor.

The announcement from CERN that we now have compelling evidence for the Higgs boson — the elementary particle that, according to theory, allows other particles to obtain mass — is widely acknowledged as a significant contribution to our understanding of the universe.

But thoughts have quickly turned to the implications of this momentous discovery — and about the value of the investment of public money, particularly in an age of austerity.

What might it offer our quality of life here on Earth? Will this so-called God particle provide the benevolence we associate with a deity by contributing to health or reducing drudgery?

The reality is that it is much too early for us to know what we might be able to achieve. Scientists have compared it to getting around a corner of a street or finding a door to a room no-one has entered before. This may just be the start of a new chain of insights to keep generations of scientists busy.

From this perspective, querying the poverty-alleviation credentials of the God particle seems churlish. But applications such as the transistor came soon from the field of quantum mechanics, so the important question still remains: how do we maximise opportunities presented by discoveries like this to respond to the challenges facing communities in developing countries in the medium- to long-term?

Competing research agendas

Experience suggests that the research and development (R&D) agendas that stem from important discoveries do not favour the priorities of the poor.

Typically, developing countries end up participating in innovations only in as far as the market needs them. Our latest Spotlight explores the barriers that local innovators in these countries face when trying to get into the international high-tech R&D market. And there are barriers too for innovators in these countries working in more conventional R&D systems such as science institutes.

There is a mix of factors that undermine the ethical and intelligent procurement of research. They include geopolitical agendas on security, as defence budgets command many research resources; international competition for research resources, which fuels the brain drain; and of course, the profit motive, which drives most capital investment, and which has spawned an army of corporate lobbyists looking for state funding.

Military agendas dominated soon after the discovery of nuclear fission, for example; and even developing countries with the infrastructure to exploit nuclear power as a source of clean energy have instead used it to achieve military ambitions.

Philanthropy and citizens united

There is hope. Take malaria, which has been a scourge to millions across the developing world for generations; even now a child is believed to die every 45 seconds in Africa from the disease. Researchers and activists have been complaining about the lack of sustained commitment to tackling the disease.

But in the last seven years, we have seen a significant growth in funding for vaccine research. Last year, Bill Gates told an informal gathering in London that there are several under-resourced diseases in the developing world for philanthropists to choose from.

Gates' own foundation, which had made malaria an early priority, and similar charitable initiatives in emerging economies and online (Kiva, a microfinance website, has interesting potential), provide important momentum for change.

Citizen philanthropy has more than doubled in terms of funding for international development over the past decade, presenting new opportunities for the international community to set the agenda on research needs. It is helping to resist — at least for now — the gravitational pull on research resources from the military and corporate lobbying.

Another area of opportunity lies in re-invigorating public-private partnerships. Many campaigners working on malaria, for instance, recognise the importance of working with business models for sustained delivery of interventions such as bednets; intellectual property rights for vaccine research; and health systems research to improve healthcare.

Model from the United Kingdom

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) owns the world's oldest development finance institute, the CDC, which has returned a profit of £1.8 billion (US$2.8 billion), all re-invested in the institute, since 2004.

It has done this by investing in promising businesses and working with local fund managers to maximise returns, taking into account environmental and social impact. The institute has worked in a wide range of sectors, from pharmaceuticals to information technology to real estate, and often with the complex stakeholder communities that we might associate with campaigners working on malaria, for instance.

As a venture capital mechanism, the CDC provides useful experience of reconciling a development agenda with capitalist instincts and matching funding to demand. Surely the time has come to think about how we might apply such experience to research.

And this leads us to the earliest implication of the Higgs boson discovery. It is a lesson in moral imperatives. This God particle reminds us of our shared humanity — that getting research insights applied to alleviating poverty matters, and is the least of what we are capable of.

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net