A fair deal for all

By | August 18, 2021

When your government can’t match the research grants paid to affluent laboratories in North America, Europe, and Japan, it would be especially sad to pay more than your wealthy competitors for standard laboratory equipment and materials.

The extent of the problem has been revealed this week by a Nature survey by researchers in Germany, Poland, the United States and Brazil (see page 453). On both sides of the Atlantic, a larger and more competitive market of established scientific forces ensures that prices drop. But elsewhere, the poor become poor.

What can researchers do to counter these harsh economics of scale? Sometimes it helps to have a little tough conversation. A leader of a Polish group told Nature that he got a 35% discount on centrifuges after his local retailer was confronted with cheaper prices across the nearby German border.

But Polish scientists have up their sleeves: their country’s impending EU membership means they will soon be able to complain to authorities in Brussels if they feel they are not benefiting from the continent’s common market.

For scientists in other poor countries, the best answer would be to negotiate international agreements to ensure that each research group benefits equally from being part of a larger, international market. Unfortunately, scientists and the bodies representing their interests can do little to influence the politics of international business. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the unjust status quo.

The Stockholm-based International Foundation for Science, a non-governmental organization aimed at helping scientists in developing countries, provides an example: its grants, which amounted to US$2.5 million in 2003, include $US$ for scientific instruments and reagents. A purchase service of 580,000 was included. And the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts recently took the initiative to provide vintage equipment to their Latin American researchers.

These are encouraging signs, but more and more efforts are needed. In particular, there is a case for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to become more deeply involved. UNESCO already has an agreement with some US non-profit organizations to promote the redistribution of used equipment at reduced prices to laboratories in poor countries. It may expand these plans, and may consider providing purchasing service for new equipment.

Finally, the national governments of the scientists affected must remove customs barriers that can severely impede the import of scientific equipment. Our survey found cases where it took more than a year for researchers to get their hands on their devices. This kind of delay is doubly frustrating when you have already paid the odds.

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