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Analytical Assistance, “Pro Humanitate”

At Pittcon 2017, 14 strangers from 11 countries met to discuss the topic of analytical technology in developing countries. The insights and experiences were both fascinating and compelling. The discussion about the role we could play in supplying or developing that technology, in particular, was long overdue.

Instrumentation is big business. C&E News reported that for combined instrumentation sales in 2015, 25 companies accounted for nearly 60 percent of the global market for analytical and life sciences laboratory equipment, with US$23.6 billion in sales (1). Four of the big dogs – Thermo Fisher Scientific, ABB, Siemens and Agilent – combined have a market capitalization of over $224 billion, up over 20 percent in the past year. About 7 percent of sales is spent on R&D for new products, roughly $2,800 million. That’s a substantial amount of money.

Over the past few years, new instrument developments have primarily been focused on incremental increases in sensitivity and software upgrades. In many cases, these improvements have been the result of corporate acquisitions. With these improvements comes the need for ultrapure reagents, stable power, clean laboratory environments and, of course, significant additional capital budgets. Now don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of better sensitivity. My question is this: How low is low enough? It seems that the answer is, “it depends.”

For example, at the Frolich Institute, we have been working with farmers and food producers in Ethiopia for several years to increase yields and food production to meet the needs of their rapidly growing population. They have seen nearly 50 percent increase in grain yields in the past ten years. Farmers are producing enough specialty crops to export to the rest of the world, and with this comes the promise of becoming a middle-income country. But they cannot. The best customers – the “first world” countries – demand certification, HACCP, data on pesticides, aflatoxins, GMO and allergens analysis from certified laboratories as a condition of importation. Again, don’t get me wrong – I am a fan of safe food and animal feed. But the developing countries do not have access to such levels of analytical capacity and technology, either because of cost, time or accessibility. So although they have safe food to sell, they are rarely able to comply with our restrictions.

My questions are these: at what point does it make sense for instrument manufacturers to invest a few hundred million dollars in manufacturing devices that are not “superior” but simply “good enough”? What would it take to design and build analytical devices that can work in environments that do not have reliable power, water, reagents and skills? When would be a good time for us to start doing our part as clever innovative scientists and engineers and help the developing world to pull themselves into middle-class countries?

I believe that it is way past that time. We have the opportunity to create 1950s-era analytical devices that use today’s technologies to solve everyday analytical challenges in the developing world. The scientists in these countries truly want to be green, sustainable and self-sufficient, but cannot afford $300,000 for the latest quaternary LC-MS/MS to run aflatoxin tests. Many have tried equipment donations only to discover the gifts remain unused because of unreliable power, lack of pure reagents and gases, limited knowledge and skills and general logistical challenges.

What happened to sufficient? pH meters that read to three decimal places are certainly impressive, but how about one that reads to one decimal, but is wind-up or solar powered, self-calibrating and only costs a few dollars? I believe that tools that can work over there will also be of great benefit over here.

The scientists at Pittcon and many others have agreed to continue the discussion we had at the conference. The next step is discovering whether deeds can back these words in a way that can provide meaningful assistance, “pro humanitate.”

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About the Author

Norman Fraley

Norman Fraley is Senior Researcher at the Frolich Institute and Instructor -Sustainability Graduate Program, Wake Forest University, North Carolina, USA.

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