Sunday, August 31, 2008

Editorial: The MIRCENs


Starting in 1975, and in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), UNESCO established 34 Microbial Resources Centres (MIRCENS) worldwide.These were in a number of categories:
  • The Biological Nitrogen Fixation MIRCENs, which focused on the improvement of soil organisms which can reduce the need for fertilizers;
  • The Culture Collection MIRCENS, which linked repositories of microbial cultures worldwide, providing a key scientific resource;
  • The Biotechnology MiRCENs, serving to apply revolutionary techniques such as genetic engineering to development problems, and to help develop that capacity in developing nations themselves;
  • The Aquaculture and Marine Biotechnology MIRCENs, focusing on a key area of molecular biology which is underrepresented in the commecial sector and in developing nations generally;
  • The Bioinformatics MIRCENs, which introduce for developing nations and practitioners a new and exploding area of science.
UNESCO supported the Network with complementary services. The United States played an important role in the MIRCEN network, especially through the American Society for Microbiology which obtained a grant to enable American scientists to provide professional training and advice to the MIRCEN Centers in developing nations.

Rita Colwell, a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for UNESCO who also served as the MIRCENs chair for many years, informs me that MIRCEN was an exceptionally successful story. It was organized within UNESCO by the late Edgar DaSilva under the direction of Sid Passman, another long-time member of the Board of Americans for UNESCO, when he headed the Division of Natural Sciences at UNESCO. He too followed the program closely, and believed it to be successful. I too had contact with the program, when directing the Office of Research in USAID, which funded microbial research projects, in some cases in MIRCEN Centers.

Unfortunately, in this decade the MIRCEN program was canceled by UNESCO. The cancellation was a result of a shortage of funds available for the Science programs of UNESCO, a continuing problem which has become ever more severe as UNESCO's resources have failed to keep up with the needs created by the burgeoning global scientific community. To some degree the gap has been filled by the networks of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, but there remains a great need for the research and capacity building in molecular biology if the promise in the field is to be realized in developing nations. Apparently a non-governmental organization was created to maintain the network, but it seems no longer to be in existence (at least its website is no longer functioning).

We have all come to recognize that the unseen microbial world must be understood and mastered if we are to conquer infectious disease, and these diseases still are the major health problem of much of the world. It is no less true (albeit less widely understood) that such mastery will contribute mightily to the improvement of agriculture and to sustaining a livable environment, and will even yield important industrial benefits. We are fortunate to live at a time in which advances in science are leading to revolutionary improvements in biological technology. UNESCO could and should play a key role in bringing the benefits of this science and technology to developing nations. The MIRCEN program provided a vehicle for UNESCO's leadership in this field, but no longer is available for that purpose. What a shame!

John Daly
(The opinions expressed in this posting are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

1 comment:

John Daly said...

With the help of Alex Zemek and Geoff Prentice of the State Department and Lucy Hoareau of UNESCO, I have obtained more information on the MIRCEN program.

The program is "not very active" now with a funding of $3000 to $10,000 per year from the regular UNESCO budget. There are no projects currently funded. Not all of the MIRCENs listed on the UNESCO MIRCEN website are still active.

UNESCO used to fund fellowships in support of the Microbial Research Network, but these were eliminated by budget cuts. Support for journals still continues through an American Society for Microbiology outreach program.