Frontier technologies can make big inroads on inequality

Big science frontier technologies have opened up new opportunities for universities to make a difference in reducing regional inequalities as well as strengthening their individual contribution to a better world.

Universities have long embraced a path towards sustainability and engaged in supporting sustainable development in addressing societal challenges head on.

However, while institutions have strived to engage with the UN 2030 sustainable development agenda in innovative ways, they have largely overlooked the possibilities that cutting edge technologies have offered them to implement this agenda more effectively.

Synchrotron technologies

A Synchrotron is an accelerator of particles, such as electrons. When the electrons are accelerated almost to the speed of light, a powerful light is generated. This light is millions of times brighter than the sunlight. Scientists use this light to analyse with great precision the molecular and atomic composition of biological samples and materials. This technology is also known as a “light source”. It is used to conduct research in dozens of disciplines, from health to archaeology to energy.

Synchrotrons tend to be the size of a sports stadium and can contain dozens of laboratories designed to research different types of biological and material samples. For instance, most of the research related to COVID-19 was conducted using synchrotron technology.

Synchrotron technologies and sustainable development

Light source synchrotron technologies are contributing to the advancement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in refreshing ways by building paths that link the need to fill social gaps with fast and accurate technological solutions. Their contributions to science and technology are outstanding.

Synchrotron researchers have published almost 113,000 muti-disciplinary research papers on a variety of topics since 1990. A substantial number of these scholarly papers are addressing issues which are at the core of the SDGs.

There are only 53 plus Synchrotrons operating around the globe (some are in construction or being upgraded). The majority are located in high-income economies, with few exceptions. There is one in Brazil, one in Jordan and none in Sub-Saharan Africa. Most of this research is conducted by researchers affiliated to universities.

Synchrotron technologies have been identified by top government agencies in the United States and Europe as the most revolutionary technology invented in the 20th Century, able to carry out efficient and precise multi-disciplinary research.

What follows is our analysis of the contribution of Synchrotron research to SDG 1 (on ending poverty) and SDG 2 (on ending hunger) to illustrate the knowledge impact generated by this technology.

Ending poverty

There are two ways of reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty (PLEP): by increasing their participation in the formal economy, thus increasing their income; and/or by reducing and changing the way they spend it. Science and technology have few opportunities to impact the level of income of people living in extreme poverty, but they can have a substantial impact on the way people spend their income.

For instance, there are several diseases that disproportionately affect PLEP. Research carried out by the American Diabetes Association in 2020 concludes that “decades of research have demonstrated that diabetes affects racial and ethnic minority and low-income adult populations in the US disproportionately, with relatively intractable patterns seen in these populations’ higher risk of diabetes and rates of diabetes complications and mortality”. The social and health impact of people with diabetes consumes both government and individual finances.

Synchrotron technologies have contributed through research to both mitigate and find a solution to this health problem. Since 1990, more than 344 academic diabetes-focussed papers using synchrotron technologies have been published. We know that the number of such studies is higher as many other academic papers are in the pipeline for publication.

There are other diseases that disproportionately affect PLEP from specific regions. According to the World Health Organization in 2021, the Sub-Saharan region was home to 95% of malaria cases and 96% of malaria deaths. Children under five accounted for about 80% of all malaria deaths in the region.

Since 1990 more than 125 Synchrotron studies on malaria have been published. Synchrotron technologies could play an even bigger role if this technology were made available to researchers living in regions where most of the PLEP reside.

Based on the UNESCO Institute of Statistics and our own calculations, we estimate than more than 176,000 researchers from poverty-stricken regions in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Sub-Saharan regions can potentially conduct their research using this cutting-edge technology.

Ending hunger

According to a 2020 World Bank report, 454 million low-income people cannot afford a healthy diet as they earn less than it costs per day. Most PLEP rely on basic foods to survive. The ones that provide the most nutritional value for them are potato, cassava, rice pearl millet, bananas, corn and wheat. Studies focusing on boosting the productivity of basic foodstuffs and their resilience to climate change and diseases are key to erasing the word hunger from the world’s vocabulary.

Research conducted in Synchrotrons which aims to achieve this goal is significant. More than 4,250 research papers have been published since 1990 focusing on this group of food staples.

It is interesting to note that countries like Japan, China and Taiwan, which have 17 Synchrotron facilities in total, pay special attention to the study of their main food staple: rice. Synchrotron studies on rice represent 66% of the research output for food staples. Corn, consumed by 50% of people in Africa and 100% of people in Latin America, does not attract the same degree of interest, with corn research papers representing only 9% of the total output.

An issue of equity in research access

Synchrotron research is contributing to achieve 12 out of the 17 SDGs. Their contribution can be accelerated if the world provides more access to this technology to researchers from some of the poorest regions in the world.

Universities can play a key role in expanding this access by designing, implementing and putting in place strategies, such as:

• Capacity building: training researchers from regions like Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa to use the Synchrotron technology to solve their own local problems by giving priority to those areas of study that can have the most impact on their development.

• Collaboration: developing strategies that foment collaboration between research teams already using this technology with researchers from poverty-stricken countries.

• Boosting incentives for researchers to carry out Synchrotron research that directly contributes to progressing the SDGs.

• Providing support to build these types of facilities in poorer regions. Latin America and the Caribbean and Africa are rich in human scientific and technological capital but poor in scientific and technological infrastructure.

The construction of these kind of facilities can be done and has been done. The Synchrotron SESAME located in Jordan is one example. It is a facility initiated in 2002 by scientists like Professor Emeritus Herman Winnick and Professor Gustav-Adolf Voss, visionary leaders like the then Director of CERN Herwig Schopper and great global education leaders like the directors general of UNESCO, Federico Mayor and Koïchiro Matsuura among others. SESAME is now operational. It is time to develop a similar initiative for Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

The world needs the contribution of universities in partnership with organisations like CERN and UNESCO to make it happen. It can be done.

Dr Victor Del Rio is a Senior Industry Research Fellow of RMIT University. Dr Del Rio authored a book on the strategies followed by five countries to build their own Synchrotron facilities. Angel Calderon is the Principal Advisor, Institutional Research and Planning, at RMIT University. Both are executive members of the Committee promoting the building of Synchrotron facilities in LATAM/Caribbean and Africa regions and more access for researchers to this type of facilities.