How Scientists Without Borders Works

A field researcher for SWB member organization INDEPTH collects health data for later use in vaccine testing in the rural village of Kokmua in Ghana.
A field researcher for SWB member organization INDEPTH collects health data for later use in vaccine testing in the rural village of Kokmua in Ghana.
J Carrier/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The late Carl Sagan famously described science as a "candle in a demon haunted world." Today, much of the developed world is aglow with the illumination of science, and the future only promises to burn brighter as science and technology exponentially improve daily life. Yet there are still vast regions on the planet where shadows of superstition, strife, poverty and pollution hold sway.

The answer, inevitably, seems simple: Why not share the scientific might of the developed world with those in the developing world. Fortunately, the United Nations and a variety of aid groups labor to do just this, bringing money, goods and essential technology to those who need it. Founded in 1971, Doctors Without Borders brings highly trained medical personnel to people in need of their expertise. Now, a new organization aims to do the same with scientific minds and resources.

Scientists Without Borders (SWB) is often described as an international matchmaker, connecting scientific minds with problems in the developing world. If there's a village in the Sudan that needs a method of reclaiming polluted wells, then there might be a willing scientist in the United States with some ideas on how to solve the problem. If there's a medical clinic in Ghana that needs new equipment, there might be a Japanese hospital with a surplus of resources.

Just as the name implies, SWB exists to break down the political, geographic and economic barriers between real-world challenges and many of the scientific minds and resources that can help tackle them.

In this article, we'll look at the history and organization of Scientists Without Borders, as well explain how you can get involved.

Scientists Without Borders History

A Congolese man is treated for cholera in a Doctors Without Borders tent clinic at the Kibati refugee camp just outside the town of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008.
A Congolese man is treated for cholera in a Doctors Without Borders tent clinic at the Kibati refugee camp just outside the town of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Bringing modern technology to the developing world is hardly a new idea. As long as cultures have flooded in from other regions, for better or worse, they've brought their ideas with them. Yet much of this influx wasn't aimed at promoting sustainability or even improving the local quality of life, especially when it was driven by colonialism and the thirst for natural resources. As opposed to this top-down model of bringing science to struggling areas, Scientists Without Borders (SWB) applies a bottom-up method, working to build a scientifically empowered, sustainable world.

The seeds of SWB date back to 1817 and the founding of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS). Like other scientific academies, the NYAS attracted the involvement of the scientific elite, but it also welcomed those merely interested in the sciences. As the name implies, it was initially an institution of and for New York City, but it soon grew into a global society, attracting such noted members as U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, Englishman Charles Darwin and France's Louis Pasteur.

Today, the NYAS boasts more than 24,000 members in 140 countries [source: NYAS]. It maintains numerous academic and corporate alliances, as well as global partnerships with such noted organizations as the Nobel Foundation and the United Nations. The NYAS wages a three-fold campaign: to advance scientific knowledge around the world, help resolve major science-based global challenges and increase the number of scientifically informed individuals.

The NYAS involves itself in a number of activities to pursue these ends, and on May 12, 2008, it wielded its partnerships and a $300,000 seed grant from the Merrick Foundation to form "Scientists Without Borders." The primary focus of the endeavor is to facilitate a better networking of scientific minds, resources and needs between the developing and developed world -- a virtual community aimed at illuminating the more shadowy corners of the globe with science.

The SWB interactive Web site and database allow scientists and scientific institutions working in the agricultural, environmental and health-related fields to share knowledge and resources. This facilitates not only connections between different continents and countries -- such as Africa and Europe, but also between different parts of a continent or country. That's the beauty of establishing an interactive sharing network: Participants can make their own connections instead of having to depend on some larger organization dictating everything.

Get Involved with Scientists Without Borders

Already, Scientists Without Borders boasts roughly 950 members from around the world. These are individuals, organizations and projects, each listed by office location, areas of expertise and the areas in which they work or are willing to work. The site also lists more than 1,200 individuals, organizations and projects that have specific needs.

The services and needs listed on the site vary greatly, covering all facets of agricultural, environmental and health-related projects. Just in the area of public health, for instance, many areas need counselors or translators to help educate communities about disease. Other areas need assistance fixing broken medical equipment or vehicles that will enable them to distribute health care. In many cases, research institutions and academies need the expertise of foreign scientists.

The SWB database continues to grow and getting involved is easy. All you have to do is visit the Web site, sign up for a free account and fill in all the relevant data about your expertise, what you can offer and the regions where you'd like to work or are willing to work. Likewise, signing up to take advantage of the global resources collected on the site is just as easy. Scientists Without Borders seeks to lay the world's scientific needs and resources out for all to see, allowing for a strategic deployment of humanity's scientific capital. As the project progresses, it will also catalog its success stories.

The globalization of science still faces many obstacles, however. For instance, the United States current visa and export regulations are rooted in 1950s policy, reportedly hampering the flow of foreign experts into the country while also limiting or barring scientific publication or exportation that could constitute a national security threat [source: Kaplan]. Critics charge that this and similar regulations pose a serious obstacle to the kind of positive scientific sharing that SWB represents.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about Scientists Without Borders and many of the problems it seeks to solve.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Kaplan, Karen. "Scientists without borders." Nature. Feb. 4, 2009. (July 13, 2009)http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/2009/090205/full/nj7230-752b.html
  • New York Academy of Sciences. (July 13, 2009)http://www.nyas.org/
  • Scientists Without Borders. (July 13, 2009)http://www.scientistswithoutborders.org/Default.aspx
  • Wu, Corinna. "Scientists Without Borders" Cell. May 16, 2008.http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674%2808%2900565-5