On Technology without Borders


As a naively minded Scientific type, I often make the mistake of imagining that merely developing technology is enough to better the world. As the developing world especially faces huge humanitarian challenges: for instance Malaria, Climate Change, HIV, and diseases such as TB, there are problems with the market conditions of the First World.
Peter Singer once wrote an essay titled ‘Hair Loss pills or Anti-Malaria medication’ pointing out that market conditions may lead to research and development that doesn’t lead to Utilitarian answers. In simple terms Utilitarianism speaks of the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’, and one can assume implicitly that Malaria and starvation aren’t conductive to human happiness. Except we in the West perhaps don’t know how to quite sympathise with that.
Peter Singer was hinting at the problem of ‘orphan diseases’, i.e. diseases which haven’t been adopted by the pharmaceutical industry due to a lack of financial incentives. A wonderful article in Seed Magazine which I came across today spoke of how to facilitate Biotechnology such as Synthetic Biology to help improve the human condition.
A paragraph that particularly struck me was:

Practically, the phenomenon of orphan diseases points to a broader challenge underlying all innovation and development. Many powerful new technologies migrate slowly, if at all, to developing world populations. More critically, the upstream choice of which technological advances to pursue often depends on market conditions or the wealth of different national governments, which means that the unique needs of developing world populations tend to go unaddressed or are not voiced during the early stages of a technology’s development. Thus, translating the promise of any new field of research, such as synthetic biology, into concrete benefits requires more than technology alone, especially when it comes to helping underserved populations in the developing world. It requires supportive legal, institutional, and commercial environments, and coordination among researchers to pool efforts toward solving shared problems.

We can’t just assume that innovation is the solution, in addressing large scale problems and in attempts to improve the human condition – and if one isn’t trying to do that directly or indirectly then why not? – one needs strong legal frameworks, and more than just referring to the gods of the ‘market forces’. Biobricks is certainly not a perfect solution, but it is interesting nonetheless and I’m very interested in how human resourcefulness in the developing world, in conjunction with Synthetic Biology can produce innovative solutions to some of humanities most pressing problems.