Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Worlds of Biophysics

The other day I received a brochure from the Biophysical Society, the world's largest association of biophysicists, with a call for papers for their 58th annual meeting. The brochure contained a world map with the number of Biophysical Society members listed for each region. Since I'm far more interested in maps than in whatever society business the rest of the brochure was trying to tell me about, this is the section that I actually paid attention to.

Here's what I learned: there's a lot of biophysicists in the US. Not so much in Africa. The list of Biophysical Society members by region, sorted by which region has the most members, is as follows:

US: 5,823
Europe: 1,790
Asia: 762
Canada: 348
Latin America: 151
Australia/New Zealand: 99
Middle East/Africa: 95

That's right, the Middle East and Africa together have less biophysicists than Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that the comparison would be even worse if the Middle East and Africa were considered as separate regions, since Israel and Iran are both relative science powerhouses.

Even as it stands, though, the numbers are stark. Here's a variation on the list above: the number of people in each region per biophysicist:

US:                    1 biophysicist per 54,000 people
Canada:             1 biophysicist per 95,000 people
Australia/NZ:    1 biophysicist per 282,000 people
Europe:             1 biophysicist per 413,000 people
Latin America:  1 biophysicist per 3,900,000 people
Asia:                 1 biophysicist per 5,050,000 people
Africa/ME:       1 biophysicist per 13,700,000 people

When weighted by population, the US has 250 times as many biophysicists as Africa and the Middle East. That's a far larger disparity than the economic one--the richest countries in Africa have about a quarter of the GDP per capita of the US, which the poorest have around a tenth (based on a rough estimate from here and here).

Now, you may object that I'm conflating "biophysicist" and "member of the Biophysical Society" here. And you'd have a good point; the society makes no effort to survey everyone to make sure they've gotten all the biophysicists, and it's likely that rates of scientists working in biophysics that pay to join a society are lower in parts of the world where research funds are less available.

This brings up an interesting point. Why wouldn't someone want to be part of an organization like the Biophysical Society? Perhaps because the main point of joining is to gain access to the conferences. There's no professional designation granted by the society, and it's not really something to put on a CV. Sure, you get a subscription to Biophysical Journal, which is probably a motivator for a few people, but not many. No, the main reason to join is that each year the society hosts it's annual meeting, the largest gathering of biophysicists in the world, as well as a number of smaller, more focussed conferences.

In principle the organization is international, but the meetings are always held in the US. For researchers in Africa, this means that the society membership and meeting registration are the smallest costs of attending: a couple of hundred dollars isn't much compared to a flight and hotel. Quickly searching United Airlines tells me that a round trip flight from Nairobi to San Francisco, where the next annual meeting is to be held, will run you about $1,800 (and also take about 30 hours each way). That would be small change in the research budget of a large American group, but for researchers at cash-strapped African universities it puts the trip out of reach. And if you can't go to the conferences, there's really no point in becoming a member of the society.

Not being able to attend conferences is important because they are where a large part of scientific networking happens. I've written before about the role of social networks in scientific careers. By being priced out of conferences, African researchers are also being kept out of the social networks that are advancing the careers of their American "colleagues".

Beyond that, conferences are vital for simply keeping up with the field at the level required to contribute to it. Here's an example. This past March, I went to a conference and presented work I had done that we were "submitting next week" to a journal. That work was finally submitted a month later, revised, accepted, and will be published in a couple of months--October, maybe. I'm not under any illusion that anyone in any part of the world is racing to react to this particular work, but it sets a typical timeline: someone who is reliant on published research articles to build off of is about half a year behind someone who went to the conference and saw the work presented there. In some areas this won't matter so much; in others six months is an eternity.

This isn't a problem specific to biophysics. Across disciplines, high profile conferences tend to happen where there are concentrations of high profile researchers, leaving poorer regions on the outside. And obviously underlying this all is a whole host of economic and political systems that the Biophysical Society can hardly be held accountable for fixing. Still, there is one step that they could take. They could hold the occasional meeting in Africa. Or Asia, or Latin America. Anywhere outside the US or Europe. Ostensibly the organization is international, after all. Hold the occasional meeting in Africa and a bunch of researchers (and students!) suddenly have a small bit of access to the professional networks and early results they are typically denied.

Why don't they do this? The cost isn't the biggest concern; I've already mentioned that travel costs would be a small amount of a typical research group's budget. The travel time is probably far more significant--most faculty I've met would far sooner part with a few thousand dollars from their grant than with sixty hours.

The biggest obstacle is apathy. As far as I can tell there is next to no concern among the research communities in the West for those in the developing world. We, they say, are a biophysics group. We are not a development organization, nor is it our job to build a scientific community in countries that don't have the economic base to support one even if they had the talent.

Perhaps. But everyone who works in science should realize that the historical scientific community in Europe and later the US was nurtured by an economy that was deeply exploitative, in a way that the rest of the world has yet to recover from, particularly since in some areas the exploitation never stopped. Extending a hand to researchers in countries on whose backs we built our scientific enterprise is the absolute least we can do.

For the moment, though, it seems like we're not even doing that.

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