Elizabeth Blackburn’s work on telomeres, for which she was jointly awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has turned her into a socially minded scientist. In a keynote lecture at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in June, Blackburn — a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco — called on scientists young and old to follow the same path: “Let’s use our scientific prowess to be more active, politically.”
Health researchers and workers use their training and the treatments available to them to prevent and treat illness. But they cannot bring their expertise to bear if they do not have the trust of the people that they are trying to treat.
This August, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, communities in the midst of an Ebola outbreak continued traditional rural burial practices that include touching bodies, despite health workers’ advice on sanitary burials. Residents in the village of Manbangu burnt down a health centre and injured an Ebola health-care worker after one resident died of Ebola. Sometimes fear and misinformation drive even more violent behaviour: in a 2014 outbreak of the disease in Guinea, residents of the village of Womey killed a group of eight visiting health workers, journalists and government officials.
Sandwip Island in southern Bangladesh almost has it all. It sits in the estuary of the Meghna River, which washes the island with rich, fertile silt, while plentiful sunlight helps coconuts, mangoes and pineapples to grow. It was once home to pirates but now thrives on honest trade. The main downside is that none of the 350,000 people living on the island have a connection to the national grid.
For years, only the wealthier Sandwip residents could generate electricity, by buying small diesel generators. About a decade ago, Bangladesh began promoting solar home systems (SHSs): small, stand-alone, rooftop photovoltaic devices that can reach poorer households. But power generation on an individual scale has drawbacks. There is a limited supply of subsidized diesel, so generators cannot be on all day, and they are noisy, polluting and have high maintenance costs owing to the low-quality fuel that is often used. And a typical SHS provides a maximum output of just 500 watts — enough for a few light bulbs and a mobile-phone charger, but too little for a hand blender or water pump.
To thrive, small enterprises need dependable electricity around the clock. So in the absence of the national grid, Sandwip went for the next best thing: a hybrid solar–diesel minigrid.
When pharmacologist Ravindra Ghooi learned in 1996 that his mother had terminal breast cancer, he began to investigate whether he could obtain morphine, in case she needed pain relief at the end of her life. But a morphine prescription in India at that time, even for the dying, was a rare thing: most states required four or five different licences to buy painkillers such as morphine, and there were harsh penalties for minor administrative errors. Few pharmacies stocked opioids and it was a rare doctor who held the necessary paperwork to prescribe them. Ghooi, who is now a consultant at Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre in Pune, used his connections to ask government and industry officials if there was a straightforward way of obtaining morphine for his mother. “Everybody agreed to give me morphine,” he recalls, “but they said they’d give it to me illegally.” Continue reading