Humanitarianism: The forgotten dimension of science

Humanitarianism: The forgotten dimension of science

January 16, 2006

At a recent public event, as I was being introduced, the moderator referred to my research contributions as “humanitarian.” This generous remark struck me as odd. I had never viewed my work as a humanitarian effort, nor myself as a humanitarian. I would venture that this is true of most scientists, our scientific institutions and other elements of our innovation system. Research and development is about generating new knowledge, solving problems and creating new products, but is not regarded as fundamentally humanitarian. When most of us think about humanitarian work, we think about providing food, medicines, care, shelter and security—the immediate needs—and not about science. This notion is of course short sighted and wrong. Science has solved some of the great humanitarian problems of the past. Smallpox has been eradicated and we are counting the last few cases of the once global scourge of polio. Advances in food production have meant that fewer people face starvation than ever before in human history. Cheap computers and wireless communication are revolutionalizing access to information in developing countries with important economic impacts for the poor. Widespread text messaging helped to save lives during the 2004 Asian tsunami. If you think about some of the scientific challenges in the infectious disease field, what would be greater humanitarian achievements than vaccines for HIV, malaria or tuberculosis?

Why have scientists come to exclude the humanitarian power of science from our collective self view and why are humanitarian concerns not a significant driver of our research and science policies? There are, no doubt, many reasons for this, a few of which seem central to me.

The word “humanitarian” is often synonymous with aid for immediate needs. The Asian tsunami was an obvious humanitarian crisis and Canadians responded quickly and generously, raising huge sums for relief efforts. AIDS results in deaths equivalent to a tsunami a month and is also an obvious humanitarian crisis. Providing treatment for AIDS and caring for AIDS orphans would commonly be regarded as humanitarian activities. However, I don’t think we (the scientific community or the Canadian populace) view the development of an HIV vaccine as a fundamentally humanitarian effort, although it clearly is. I also doubt the same kind of outpouring of support would occur for the development of an HIV vaccine or even for those AIDS activities that we would consider humanitarian. There is something about the temporality of a problem and the proximity of solutions to it, which divides our concept of humanitarian work from science for longer term solutions.

The phenomenon of the humanitarian-science divide also results from how we ensilo science and research separately from our humanitarian work. Our scientific institutions—the granting councils, the foundations, academia, the federal science departments—are focussed domestically and do not have explicit humanitarian mandates or goals, although certainly each has some activity with humanitarian dimensions. Our national humanitarian efforts are coordinated through the Canadian International Development Agency, a non-scientific organization without a science funding mandate. CIDA does not immediately look to how a scientific approach might help deal with a problem. Moreover when CIDA does fund science, it is directed to organizations outside of Canada because of rules on spending from the official development assistance envelope, largely excluding Canadian science from making a contribution. So the way we organize and connect our national science and humanitarian efforts contributes to the divide. This is ironic considering the contribution that science could make to our national humanitarian objectives.

Another factor in the genesis of this divide is the disconnect between the scientific community and the humanitarian community. To a great extent, the two don’t understand each other. Certainly research is often seen by the humanitarian community as esoteric and unhelpful with immediate needs and the long-term contribution science could make to better solutions to great humanitarian problems is forgotten. Greater communication from the scientific community on how science can help find innovative solutions for immediate problems as well as provide long-term ultimate solutions, such as vaccines for major killers, would help.

Final factors in creating the humanitarian-science divide are how scientists view themselves and how society views scientists. I venture that, like me, most scientists do not think of themselves first as humanitarians. Nor do I think that society would generally view a Jonas Salk or a Francis Crick as a humanitarian in the same sense that it would consider Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa as humanitarians. This is curious and I don’t have an answer as to why this is the case. Perhaps it is rooted in the primary motivation of scientists, which I think is primarily the discovery process and only secondarily humanitarian.

This issue is not unique to Canada. The conceptual divide between what is viewed as humanitarian and what is viewed as science is pervasive, at least in western developed countries. This may be changing however, led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through their Grand Challenges in Global Health program and other granting, they have engaged the global scientific community in solving some of the world’s greatest problems. They have made an explicit decision to use science as a main strategy for achieving their humanitarian and charitable goals. In Canada, with some change of thinking, de-siloization and some innovative programming, we could firmly place science at the center of our efforts to achieve our national humanitarian goals and make a greater difference in the world.

Dr. Frank A. Plummer is Chief Science Advisor for the Public Health Agency of Canada as well as Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.