Date: December 15, 2012
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Julio Jané. In 1925 he became the first Latin American to graduate as a specialist in Radiology and Radiodiagnosis. In 1927, at the age of 26, he graduated as Doctor of Medicine at the Sorbonne.[/caption]
One hundred and eleven years ago, a series of events took place in Cuba worthy of being engraved in that book of yesterday that is our national memory.
Did you ask for examples? Well, here are just a handful of them.
In that already remote 1901, Ñico Saquito, Luis Marquetti and Rafael Cueto were born to Cuban music. The National Library is founded. Havana joins the number of cities in the world that have streetcars.
Yellow fever is drastically reduced, thanks to the application of the theory enunciated by the Camagüeyan genius Carlos J. Finlay.
Meanwhile, in the southeast of Cuba, in the Villa del Guaso, on October 22, 1901, a certain couple -formed by the doctor in pharmacy Mr. Pablo Jané Trocné and his cousin Julia Jané Escobedo- is giving birth to a child. An apparently irrelevant fact, but which would later prove its transcendence.
THE CAREER OF AN ILLUSTRIOUS CUBAN
Yes, when the twentieth century was dawning, the Jané-Jané family of Guantanamo had a child, who they named Julio. Twenty-seven years later, we will find him as an assistant to that glory of world science, the Polish Marie Curie -born Marja Sklodowska-, at the Rhodium Institute in Paris. For several years he would assist in their research -until the death of the scientist- to that pinnacle of knowledge.
Julio Jané graduated in Medicine at the universities of La Sorbonne and Havana. He passed his residency exams at the French Croix Saint Simon Anti-Cancer Center (1923). In 1925 he became the first Latin American specialist in Radiology and Radiodiagnosis. Two years later, he was nominated to become the director of the surgical services of the Anti-Cancer Center of the Lariboisière Hospital in Paris.
Among many other qualifications, he obtained a degree as a nuclear energy technician from the Institute of Nuclear Studies based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the place in the United States where the atomic bomb was developed. He already enjoyed renown in the world scientific world, and was not lacking in offers in Paris, which he turned down to work in his country.
Armed with his talent and the solid preparation he had acquired, Julio Jané was a pioneer in science in Cuba, where he returned in 1937.
Here he put electrology to work in rehabilitation and physiotherapy. His experiments created a novel method to diagnose cancer, and he was involved in the application of ultrasound, when this resource was still in its infancy. He worked successfully in the rehabilitation of polio patients and was a sworn enemy of invasive techniques.
In El Vedado he gave life to the Electrotherapy and Radiotherapy Center. He contributed to the founding of the Radium Institute, attached to the Reina Mercedes Hospital, while at the same time he received offers to work in Barcelona or New York.
Jané collaborated with the American atomic physicist Paul C. Aebersold (1910-1967), one of the greats in the peaceful applications of nuclear science. He shared with Dr. Aebersold sympathy for the nascent Cuban revolution. Perhaps this explains why the American died, under strange circumstances, falling from a skyscraper, a fact that the American special services wanted to show as a suicide, caused by psychic imbalance.
Dr. Julio Jané was not only a leading scientist, but also a man of high civic virtue.
His deep-rooted friendship with Eduardo Chibás, with whom he shared dreams of popular improvement, was no coincidence. (When the Orthodoxo leader was wounded by his own hand, Jané was prevented from being part of the medical board that discussed the case. This refusal led many to believe that a conspiracy had taken the leader’s life).
In the midst of the official indifference to health, he gave public talks in the university Plaza Cadenas, in order to instruct the people medically. Such action would be described as subversive by the henchmen of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.
Concerned about agriculture and popular food, he advocated the conservation of food by means of radiation, because, he said, “we sow to rot”.
He declared war on transnational companies that added carcinogenic substances to food.
Batista – a usurper in power – tried to develop a nuclear project and a congress on that matter, which were not going to be anything more than masquerades. Jané opposed this “and, supported by scientists of solid prestige, among them Dr. Aebersold, managed to frustrate the political attempts.
This Guantanamero descendant of Mambises, great for his brain and his heart, was an unconditional supporter of his homeland until August 8, 1973, when he went down to the grave in the Pantheon of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
It has been said about Dr. Julio Jané that he did not value the Hippocratic Code as a cold mandate, much less as a text of professional formality and vague importance -only useful for quoting it in speeches-, but that he assumed it as a vital commitment.
(Taken from Cubahora)
November 12, 2012
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Intelligence, rigor, will, imagination, passion… these were some of the qualities of Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. But there were more things in which she was a pioneer. We list them below:
1. Top of her class when she finished high school at the age of 15 (1883). She was awarded a gold medal.
2. The first woman to graduate in Physics at the Sorbonne University. That year (1893) only two women graduated in the entire University of Paris. Marie was also the first in her class.
3. The first person to use the term radioactivity (1898).
4. The first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate in science (1903).
5. The first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics (1903). The prize was awarded to her, together with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel, for the discovery of radioactivity.
6. The first woman to be a professor and head of laboratory at the Sorbonne University (1906).
7. The first person to have two Nobel Prizes. The second was in Chemistry, in 1911, for having prepared radium and researched its compounds.
8. The first woman to be a member of the French Academy of Medicine (1922).
9. The first Nobel mother with a Nobel daughter. In 1935 her daughter Irene was awarded the prize in Chemistry.
10. The first woman to be buried under the dome of the Pantheon on her own merits (1995).
By Carlos del Porto
November 7, 2017
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Maria Curie was a Polish physicist, mathematician and chemist, and a naturalized French citizen. She was the fifth daughter of Władysław Skłodowski, a high school teacher in physics and mathematics like her grandfather, and Bronisława Boguska, who was a teacher, pianist and singer.
In 1891, at the age of 24, Maria enrolled in the Mathematical and Natural Sciences Department at the Sorbonne University in Paris, France. From that moment on, Maria was renamed Marie Skłodowska. Despite having a solid cultural background acquired in a self-taught way, Marie had to work hard to improve her knowledge of French, mathematics and physics, in order to keep up with her peers.
In 1893, she obtained a degree in Physics and came first in her class; in 1894, she also graduated in Mathematics, coming second in her class. In that year she also met her future husband, Pierre Curie, who was a professor of physics. The two began working together in the laboratories and married on July 26, 1895.
After a double degree, the next challenge was to obtain a doctorate. Up to that time, the only woman who had been awarded a doctorate was the German Elsa Neumann. The first step was to choose the topic of her thesis. After discussing it with her husband, they both decided to focus on the work of physicist Henri Becquerel, who had discovered that uranium salts transmitted rays of an unknown nature. This work was related to the recent discovery of X-rays by the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. Marie Curie became interested in this work and, with the help of her husband, decided to investigate the nature of the radiation produced by uranium salts.
Marie Curie and Pierre Curie studied radioactive leaves, in particular uranium in the form of pitchblende, which had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. The logical explanation was to suppose that the pitchblende contained pieces of some element much more radioactive than uranium. They also discovered that thorium could produce radioactivity. After several years of constant work, by concentrating various kinds of pitchblende, they isolated two new chemical elements.
The first, in 1898, was named Polonium in reference to their native country. The other element was named Radium, due to its intense radioactivity. Pierre had periods of great fatigue that even forced him to rest in bed, and both suffered burns and sores from their dangerous radioactive work. Shortly thereafter Marie obtained one gram of radium chloride, which she achieved after handling almost eight tons of pitchblende. In 1902 they presented the result, which brought them fame. Both Pierre and Marie accept and lend all their research without making any profit from it by means of patents, a fact that is applauded by the whole world.
Directed by Becquerel himself, on June 25, 1903, Marie defended her doctoral thesis, entitled Investigations on Radioactive Substances, before a tribunal presided over by the physicist Gabriel Lippmann. She obtained her doctorate and was awarded cum laude. Together with Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie, Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, “in recognition of the extraordinary services rendered in their joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Henri Becquerel”. She was the first woman to receive such an award.
On April 19, 1906, a tragedy occurred: Pierre was run over by a six-ton carriage and died without anything being done for him. Marie was greatly affected, but continued with her work and refused a life pension. She also took over her husband’s professorship and was the first woman to teach at the university in the 650 years since its founding. On November 15, 1906, Marie Curie gave her first lecture. Expectations were high, as it was the first time a woman had taught a class at the university. A large number of people attended; many of them were not even students. In that first session, Marie spoke about radioactivity.
In 1910 she demonstrated that a gram of pure radium could be obtained. The following year she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “in recognition of her services to the advancement of Chemistry by the discovery of the elements Radium and Polonium, the isolation of Radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this element”.
With a disinterested attitude, she did not patent the process of Radium isolation, leaving it open to the research of the entire scientific community. Marie Curie was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes in two different fields. The other person to have won it so far is Linus Pauling (Chemistry and Peace). Two Nobel Prizes in the same field have been won by John Bardeen (Physics) and Frederick Sanger (Chemistry).
A few months after her last visit to Poland, in the spring of 1934, Curie, after going blind, died on July 4, 1934 at the Sancellemoz Clinic, near Passy (Haute-Savoie, France), from aplastic anemia, probably due to the radiation to which she was exposed in her work, and whose harmful effects were still unknown. She was buried next to her husband in the cemetery of Sceaux, a few kilometers south of Paris.
Sixty years later, in 1995, her remains were transferred, together with those of Pierre, to the Pantheon in Paris. In the speech delivered at the solemn entry ceremony, on April 20, 1995, the then President of the French Republic, François Mitterrand, addressing especially her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, emphasized that Marie had been the first woman to be buried in the Pantheon, noted that Marie, who had been the first French woman to be a Doctor of Science, to be a professor at the Sorbonne and also to receive a Nobel Prize, was again the first French woman to be laid to rest in the famous Pantheon in Paris on her own merits (in which she remains the only one to this day).
Her eldest daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie (1897 – 1956), also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, in 1935, one year after her mother’s death, for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.
She founded the Curie Institute in Paris and in Warsaw, and in addition to the two Nobel Prizes, won the Davy Medal in 1903, the Matteucci Medal in 1904 and the Willard Gibbs Prize in 1921.
By Luis A. Montero Cabrera
January 28, 2021
This is the fourth in a series of articles
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
It has been news in Cuba for months that we are generating our vaccines from platforms already created. The centers generating such projects work in partnership, exchanging experiences and knowledge, and also competing, as it should be done in a society that works for the good of all. Any group that participates will be happy for the triumph of the other, because what matters is the welfare of the whole society. Obviously they will also be very happy if their own vaccine candidate is successful.
It has been mentioned that our vaccines are all based on a key antigen of the COVID 19 virus: the constituent molecules of the outer spikes of the aggregate that makes up the virus. This molecular complex is referred to as RBD, from the acronym for receptor binding domain. We have also learned that adjuvants are substances that increase the effectiveness of vaccines. Their use is a common practice of this “engineering”, even to achieve vaccines against several diseases simultaneously.
The Finlay Vaccine Institute (IFV) is an institution that has grown from the success in the 80’s of the last century with the world’s first vaccine against meningococcus B. The current management has another very important success under its belt, in this case from the University of Havana (UH), with the world’s first commercial synthetic vaccine. This was put into practice at the beginning of this century against haempphilus influenzae. IFV is now working on at least two vaccine candidates known as SOBERANA 01 and SOBERANA 02. The RBD antigens of both are chemically treated variants of the coronavirus spikes.
The SOBERANA 01 antigen is based on the RBD produced from live mammalian cells into which DNA has been introduced with the codes to make them produce the desired molecules. This is why it is called “recombinant” RBD. The great advantage is that these molecules are identical to those of the virus but have been obtained without the intervention of this harmful entity and in a very efficient and harmless way in our industrial plants for this purpose in the neighboring Center for Molecular Immunology (CIM). The latter has a long experience in these matters and a proverbial willingness to empower itself through collaboration.
The RBD has been transformed with highly advanced laboratory chemical methods to duplicate it in a single structure. This is a so-called “dimeric” form that in preliminary tests proved to be more stimulating to the immune system. In short, it is more immunogenic than the simple “monomeric” form.
SOBERANA 01 also contains proteins that are harmless antigens of the outer membrane of the dreaded meningococcus bacteria in conjunction with aluminum hydroxide as adjuvants. The meningococcal antigen helps to “trigger” the generation of antibodies. Aluminum hydroxide is harmless, but it prolongs the presence of the antigen and gives our defenses more time to react. The interest in the effectiveness of a vaccine lies in the fact that it causes us to generate antibodies (immunogenicity) and that these are the ones that trigger the defense actions against COVID 19 (specific immunogenicity).
The SOBERANA 02 antigen is the same RBD of the COVID 19 virus but in monomeric form. The aim is to provoke the immune response of the organism by conjugating it (molecularly binding it) with another well-known and harmless antigen as adjuvant: the “tetanus toxoid”. This substance is associated with the bacteria that produce tetanus, but is chemically inactivated to render it harmless. It has long been used as their highly effective vaccine. A construction of the RBD with the toxoid creates a complex containing more specific antigens. It can be said that it would be “multimeric”. Thus an interesting engineering of the antigen with an adjuvant ensues.
The Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), one of the most important institutions in Cuban science, has generated the other vaccines. Its track record is transcendental in these matters. It has two candidates also based on the RBD antigen whose coded name is CIGB 669 for nasal application and CIGB 66 for intramuscular application. Their applications have “combat” names such as MAMBISA and ABDALA. The mambisas were the women who joined the forces of the liberating army against the peninsular crown at the end of the 19th century. This denomination was reviled and even pejorative in the Spanish royalist press of the time. They made it equivalent to something like “terrorist” today. However, when the forces of freedom triumphed, it became a symbol of sublime militancy. ABDALA is the name of a play in poetry by José Martí, his first and adolescent literary work. The hero Abdala appears as a young man who is a convinced defender of his homeland, who puts it before all other personal and family interests. Our vaccines are samples of sovereignty, the fight for freedom and love for the homeland.
The nasal formulation of the preparation CIGB 669 takes advantage of the excellent permeability capacity of the intranasal membranes. Most of our skin is shielded against the penetration of molecules of any kind. But nasal membranes are not like that. They encompass a large surface area that is very dense in blood vessels and very permeable, which makes them a very attractive route for medicating. This pathway is also naturally selected to generate some very neutralizing antibodies and in the same location that is the route of virus entry.
Its RBD is accompanied as an adjuvant with another antigen that is used in the proven “HeberNasvac”, the chronic hepatitis B vaccine that is also administered nasally. This is its nucleocapsid, which is what the central molecular complex in a virus particle is called. Viruses are not cells, but they usually have this kind of “nucleus”. HeberNasvac” is the world’s first therapeutic vaccine against a chronic infectious disease. This platform is patented by CIGB for its vaccines. In the world there is only one other nasal vaccine on the market, the FluMist and Fluenz Tetra (according to their applications in the USA and Europe) and it is used against influenza. It has the advantages of being non-invasive and can be applied even in precarious hygienic conditions, as can be the case in many places in this disparate world.
Unlike the Finlay Vaccine Institute vaccines, the adjuvant nucleocapsid in CIGB 669 is recombinant and is produced in a typical culture medium. Its RBD, also recombinant, from CIGB is produced in yeast. MAMBISA is actually a procedure consisting of dose combinations of the two CIGB vaccine candidates. ABDALA is intramuscular only with the CIGB 66 candidate.
The success of a vaccine as a drug needs to be demonstrated before mass application. How is the most indicated and effective one known? How is work being done to test Cuban vaccines in times when a single day’s delay in application can cost a life?
Luis Alberto Cabrera Montero holds a Doctorate Chemical Sciences. He is a Senior Researcher and Full Professor at the University of Havana. He is President of the Scientific Advisory Council of the University of Havana and is a Merit Member and Coordinator of Natural and Exact Sciences of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba. For a full biography, see http://www.academiaciencias.cu/en/node/674
By Domingo Amuchastegui
Received January 27, 2021 in English
In late December 2016, during the economic debates at Cuba’s National Assembly, Agustín Lage Dávila –renown Cuban scientist- publicly questioned the absence of explicit financial support to scientific institutions, making an urgent appeal to meet such needs (See my January 2017 column). The demand was most unusual; in fact, it was a serious warning. At that time, there were no official comments or reply from the new Minister of Economy and Planning, Ricardo Cabrisas or any other official…at least publicly.
A month later, it was obvious that Lage’s warning was not an isolated statement. Most Cuban scientists and experts, shared the following approach: “It is evident that among ourselves there isn’t full understanding about this vital issue (the proper and necessary funding for scientific development) and that it is required to go deeper in its analysis to be able to start effective actions, that today become very urgent.” The usual funds assigned at the beginning of every fiscal year for R&D and Science and Technology Activities (ACT in Spanish), had explicitly “disappeared” from the 2017 budget Supporting this view there were scientists and experts key institutions from the Ministry of Technology and Environment, Higher Education Ministry, BioCubaFarma, and others.
Furthermore, it was pointed out that over the last 10 years GDP growth did not include any increment in resources assigned to I+D, bringing down its contribution to the GDP to 0.42 percent. As a consequence, and despite some successes, scientific potentials were weakened. Resources to support the development of science in Cuba –together with taking pride in its biotech/pharmaceutical achievements- must be clearly stated in the nation’s budget seeking to promote I+D and ACT, putting an end to such negative trends.
Some may argue that currently –resulting from policies of economic decentralization- scientific institutions are allowed to invest a portion of its proceeds in ACT, but the truth is that such funds are extremely modest and are kept at a very low level due to current government policies. At the same time, exports coming from the field of science have been dragging for several years now the default in payments from some of Cuba’s largest markets like Venezuela, Angola, and others, thus aggravating its financial needs.
In recent years, again and again, it has become a familiar pattern to read in Cuba’s official economic reports about “the decline of exports of goods and services.” One important segment of such declining feature is connected, precisely, to that of the declining trend in the field of biotech/pharmaceutical research, production, and exports, including serious shortages in the local markets (hospitals and pharmacies), a most unusual problem.
Among Cuban scientists and experts some of the most relevant, and persistent, proposals and recommendation are the following:
— Funds for ACT should be a priority.
— Access to risk capitals is another option to explore.
— The new law to be discussed in the near future must include basic principals connected to ACT in the field of business operations.
— Resorting to foreign investment, putting an end to the official refusal to open up to such possibility. The example of how this can benefit scientific potentials and technologies can be found in the many benefits that foreign investment has added to Cuba’s nickel and oil industries.
–Keeping higher education institutions isolated from business-like projects and investments should come to an end, as well as their right to retain proceeds and benefits from such ties. Outdated legislation in this particular field should come to an end.
–A sound policy of stimulating those who excel in their work and achievements.
Government policies and actions need to pay very special attention, and care, to this situation, considering how important this field has been to Cuba’s development, economy, and also its international prestige. They cannot continue to turn their backs to such demands. A sense of urgency and the sound recommendations put in place, must not be overlooked nor postponed anymore.
By Clifford D. Conner
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
When I learned that an edition of A People’s History of Science would be published in Cuba, it occurred to me that in no country in the world would readers be more likely to appreciate its central theme, which is that science is not and never has been the exclusive province of a few elite geniuses. President Castro himself made that point very succinctly in a National Science Day speech on January 15, 1992. In Cuba, he said, “there are hundreds of thousands of scientists. Even the individual that manufactures the small parts and looks for solutions is a scientist and an investigator of a sort.”
This book is a general survey of a very large subject, and does not pretend to be all-inclusive. One particular area to which it accorded insufficient attention was the science of the twentieth century, and especially the relationship of science to the great revolutionary events that occurred in Russia, China, and Cuba. I will try to at least partially remedy that deficiency now.
Throughout history, revolutions have tended to create positive conditions for the development of science by removing obstacles to innovative thought and practice. In the process of “turning the world upside down,” revolutions have typically eliminated censorship and broken the institutional power of entrenched intellectual elites that stifled science. Furthermore, by liberating subordinate social classes, revolutions have brought many more actors onto the stage of history. The resulting vast increase in the number of people able to play an active role in shaping their lives has enhanced all fields of human endeavor, including science.
Revolutions in the twentieth century have also encouraged the development of science in other ways. From Russia to Vietnam, science became a major governmental priority wherever revolutions guided by Marxist parties occurred. The socialist revolutions that replaced market-controlled economies with centrally planned economies have been able to marshal resources and focus attention on scientific goals to an unprecedented degree and with unprecedented results. “National liberation” revolutions in poorer countries have broken the chains of imperialist domination that had previously restricted them to the low-tech role of raw-materials suppliers. Being free to create their own modern industries naturally stimulated their interest in modern science and technology.
Science and the Russian Revolution
“The Bolsheviks who took over Russia in 1917,” Loren Graham writes in Science in Russia and the Soviet Union, “were enthusiastic about science and technology. Indeed, no group of governmental leaders in previous history ever placed science and technology in such a prominent place on their agenda.” The results proved to be momentous. “In a period of sixty years the Soviet Union made the transition from being a nation of minor significance in international science to being a great scientific center. By the 1960s Russian was a more important scientific language than French or German, a dramatic change from a half-century earlier.” The Soviet Union’s ascension to international scientific leadership was strikingly confirmed when it became the first country to launch an artificial satellite and to put an astronaut into orbit.
Lenin’s appreciation of the value of science-based technology is apparent in his famous definition of communism as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” But despite Lenin’s desires and intentions, scientific development got off to a slow start in the early years of the Soviet Union. Efforts to promote research were severely hampered not only by the war-ravaged country’s shortage of material resources, but by a deficiency of scientific talent caused by the exodus of many scientists who were hostile to the revolution. Nor did it help that a large proportion of the scientifically and technically trained specialists who did not emigrate were unsympathetic to the Bolshevik regime. More than a decade after the 1917 revolution, fewer than two percent of the Soviet Union’s engineers—138 out of about 10,000—were Communist cadres.
Nonetheless, Lenin believed it would be counterproductive to try to forcibly impose the Bolshevik will on the recalcitrant scientists and engineers. Totalitarian control of scientific institutions was not his policy but Stalin’s. At the end of 1928 the Imperial Academy of Sciences, a Czarist institution, not only continued to exist but was still the most prestigious of scientific bodies, and not one of its academicians belonged to the Communist Party. It was not until the 1929–32 period, when Stalin was well on his way toward assuming complete command, that the Communist Party took over the Academy and reorganized it.
In the first years of the revolution, an ultra-radical current within the Communist movement demanded the “proletarianization” of science and the dismissal of the “bourgeois” experts. Lenin vigorously opposed this Proletkult movement, which he characterized as infantile and irresponsible. Lenin’s great authority was able to hold the Proletkult campaign at bay for a number of years, but after his death Stalin demagogically manipulated it for factional purposes. In the years 1928–31 he promoted a Cultural Revolution (later to be imitated by Mao Zedong in China) that once again counterposed “proletarian science” to “bourgeois science.” Purges of scientists and campaigns to ensure political conformity caused chaos and disruption within the scientific institutions. Scientific education was paralyzed as the works of Einstein, Mendel, Freud, and others were condemned as bourgeois science and banned from the universities.
Meanwhile, however, the relentless pressure of external threats to the Soviet Union allowed Stalin to rally support, consolidate his power, and impose a program of rapid industrialization and agricultural collectivization requiring significant input from the sciences. Compulsory centralized planning plus massive funding rapidly gave birth to “Big Science” in the Soviet Union. The result was the creation of a powerful, but distorted, science establishment.
The limitations Stalin’s policies imposed on free inquiry acted as a counterweight to the revolution’s great gift to Russian science, which was the ability of the centralized economy to marshal and organize resources. Although the Soviet Union rose close to the top of the science world—second only to the United States—in the final analysis, its record was disappointing. In spite of its success in accomplishing some very impressive large-scale technological feats—hydroelectric power plants, nuclear weapons, earth-orbiting satellites, and the like—the achievements of the Soviet science establishment, given its immense size, fell far short of what might have been expected of it.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused it to forfeit the strong position it had gained in international science. A 1998 assessment by the U.S. National Science Foundation reported that with regard to Russia and the other spinoffs of the former Soviet Union, science in those countries is on the edge of extinction, surviving only by means of charitable donations from abroad.
Science and the Chinese Revolution
Just as World War One gave rise to a Marxist-led revolution in Russia, so did World War Two facilitate the victory of a revolution in China under the aegis of a Communist Party. In 1949 the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed and the remnants of the Guomindang regime fled to Taiwan. The revolution brought to power a government that for the first time had the will and the ability to create institutions of Big Science, as had previously been done in the Soviet Union.
Soviet science provided more than simply a model for Mao Zedong’s regime. In the 1950s Soviet scientists and technicians participated heavily in the construction of science in the new China and they created it in their own image. However, there were strings attached—Stalin expected the Chinese to submit to Soviet control—and that led to problems.
Stalin had originally pledged full support to the effort to replicate Soviet Big Science in China, including the development of nuclear weapons. But there were sharp limits to the Kremlin’s spirit of proletarian solidarity. When the Mao regime began to show signs of resistance to Soviet control, Soviet leaders apparently had second thoughts about creating a nuclear power in a large country with which it had a long common border. They reneged on their promise to share nuclear technology, precipitating a deep and bitter Sino-Soviet split.
In June 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev abruptly ordered the withdrawal of all aid from China. Thousands of Soviet scientists and engineers were called home immediately, taking their blueprints and expertise with them. It was a ruthless act of sabotage that dealt a crushing blow not only to Chinese science but to the country’s economic and industrial development as a whole.
Although set back several years, the goal of constructing a Soviet-style science establishment endured. The Soviet formula of heavily bureaucratized central planning plus massive funding produced similar mixed results in China. With very little foreign assistance, strategic nuclear weapons were developed and satellites were launched into space—both extremely impressive feats. Nonmilitary science and technology in Chinese industries and at the research institutes and universities, however, remained at a relatively primitive level.
In spite of the devastating blow caused by the Soviet Union’s withdrawal of support, China accomplished some remarkable achievements in nuclear and space technology—a testament to the power of the planned economy to mobilize and focus resources against all odds. The country tested its first atomic bomb in 1964 and its first hydrogen bomb in 1967, and launched its first satellite into Earth orbit in 1970—number one in a series of scores of space probes leading up to 2003, when China became only the third nation to independently send an astronaut into space. The science establishment, however, has remained highly bureaucratized and focused on military and big industrial projects at the expense of research aimed at improving the lives of the billion-plus people of China.
It is undeniable that the centralization and planning made possible by the 1949 revolution is at the root of China’s transformation from a negligible factor to a major player on the international science scene—perhaps even the primary future challenger to the United States’ dominance. Yet the mass of the Chinese population continues to endure a material standard of living far below that of the people of Europe, Japan and the United States. That an orientation more centered on human needs is possible has been demonstrated by a revolution that occurred in a much smaller country.
The people-oriented science of the Cuban Revolution
In the first week of 1959 revolutionary forces under the banner of the July 26th Movement entered Havana and established a new government. As events unfolded, the revolution’s leaders soon found themselves embroiled in conflict with the United States. They came to believe that economic sabotage by pro–United States industrialists operating within Cuba could only be prevented by nationalizing the Cuban economy and declaring a governmental monopoly of foreign trade. As United States–owned firms were nationalized, Cuba’s confrontation with its mighty neighbor deepened, and for protection the new regime entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union.
Once the revolution’s leaders were in command of a fully nationalized economy, they enjoyed the same advantages that had enabled their Soviet and Chinese counterparts to develop powerful science establishments. The situation in Cuba, however, was considerably different: The earlier revolutions had occurred in two of the world’s largest countries, but Cuba was a small island with a population of only about ten million people. Its scientific endeavors, therefore, were not channeled into a quixotic effort to compete directly with the United States in the field of military technology. Instead, Cuba would depend on diplomatic and political means for its national security—that is, on its alliance with the Soviet Union and on the moral authority its revolution had gained throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. That allowed its science establishment to direct its attention in other, less military-oriented, directions.
The USSR and China had both sought to build powerful, autonomous economies that could go head-to-head in competition with the world’s leading capitalist nations. With that in mind, they aimed their science efforts at facilitating the growth of basic heavy industry. The Cubans, by contrast, oriented their science program toward the solution of social problems. Scientific development, they decided, depended first of all on raising the educational level of the entire population. Before the revolution, almost 40 percent of the Cuban people were illiterate. In 1961 a major literacy campaign was launched that reportedly resulted in more than a million Cubans learning to read and write within a single year. Today the literacy rate is 97 percent and science education is a fundamental part of the national curriculum.
In addition to education, universal healthcare was assigned high priority, giving impetus to the development of the medical sciences. A harsh economic embargo imposed by the United States compelled the Cubans to find ways to produce their own medicines. They met the challenge and the upshot was that Cuba, despite its “developing world” economic status, now stands at the forefront of international biochemical and pharmacological research.
As evidence of the success of their medical programs, Cuban officials point to comparative statistics routinely used to quantify the well-being of nations, the most informative measures being average life expectancy and infant mortality. In both categories, Cuba has risen to rank among the wealthiest industrialized nations. Richard Levins, a professor at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, contends that “Cuba has the best healthcare in the developing world and is even ahead of the United States in some areas such as reducing infant mortality.” As for life expectancy, the CIA’s World Factbook statistics for 2006 report that the average lifespan in Cuba of 77.41 years earns it a rank of 55th out of 226 countries, while the United States’ average of 77.85 years puts it slightly higher, in 48th place.
Another key indicator of the quality of a nation’s healthcare system is the doctor-to-patient ratio. According to the World Health Organization’s statistics for 2006, out of 192 countries in the world, Cuba ranks first in that category: There is one doctor for every 170 people in Cuba, compared, for example, with one doctor per 390 in the United States, per 435 in the United Kingdom, per 238 in Italy, and per 297 in France. Most of the nations of the developing world have fewer than one doctor per 1,000 inhabitants.
The abundance of Cuban medical practitioners today is especially remarkable considering that in reaction to the nationalization of medical services in 1960 almost half of the island’s physicians emigrated to the United States, leaving only about 3,000 doctors and fewer than two dozen medical professors. In 1961 the revolutionary government addressed that problem by constructing medical teaching facilities. Today, according to the World Health Organization, thirteen medical schools are in operation in Cuba.
The doctor-to-patient ratio only tells part of the story, because Cuba’s medical schools in fact produce a large surplus of physicians—far more than can be put to productive use on the island itself. As a result, Cuba has actively exported its doctors to other parts of the world. The itinerant Cuban physicians do not “follow the money”—they go to parts of the developing world most in need of healthcare services. With the stated ambition of becoming a “world medical power,” Cuba offers more humanitarian medical aid to the rest of the world than does any other country, including the wealthy industrialized nations. The Cuban government has more doctors working throughout the world than does the World Health Organization.
A January 17, 2006, BBC News report stated: “Humanitarian missions in 68 countries are manned by 25,000 Cuban doctors, and medical teams have assisted victims of both the Tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. In addition, last year 1,800 doctors from 47 developing countries graduated in Cuba. . . . Under a recent agreement, Cuba has sent 14,000 medics to provide free health care to people living in Venezuela’s barrios, or shantytowns, where many have never seen a doctor before.” In addition to the medical equipment, medicines, and the services of doctors it has provided throughout the developing world, Cuba has also helped to build and staff medical schools in Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, and Yemen.
Cuba’s healthcare successes have been closely linked to the pioneering advances its laboratories have produced in the medical sciences. In the 1980s a worldwide “biotechnological revolution” occurred, and Cuban research institutions took a leading role in it. Among the most noteworthy products of Cuban bioscience are vaccines for treating meningitis and hepatitis B, the popular cholesterol-reducer PPG (which is derived from sugarcane), monoclonal antibodies used to combat the rejection of transplanted organs, recombinant interferon products for use against viral infections, epidermal growth factor to promote tissue healing in burn victims, and recombinant streptokinase for treating heart attacks.
The Cuban biotech institutes focus their attention on deadly diseases that “Big Pharma” (the profit-motivated multinational drug corporations) tends to ignore because they mainly afflict poor people in the developing world. An important part of their mission is the creation of low-cost alternative drugs. In 2003 Cuban researchers announced the creation of the world’s first human vaccine containing a synthetic antigen (the “active ingredient” of a vaccine). It was a vaccine for treating Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b), a bacterial disease that causes meningitis and pneumonia in young children and kills more than 500,000 throughout the world every year. An effective vaccine against Hib already existed and had proven successful in industrialized nations, but its high cost sharply limited its availability in the less affluent parts of the world. The significantly cheaper synthetic vaccine has already been administered to more than a million children in Cuba and is currently being introduced into many other countries.
The Cuban example offers a particularly clear case study of how a revolution has contributed to the development of science. The Cuban revolution removed the greatest of all obstacles to scientific advance by freeing the island from economic subordination to the industrialized world. The wealthier countries’ ability to manufacture products at relatively low cost allows them to flood the markets of the nonindustrialized countries with cheaply produced machine-made goods, effectively preventing the latter from industrializing. The only way out of this dilemma for the poorer countries is to remove themselves from the worldwide economic system based on market exchange, where the rules are entirely stacked against them. The history of the twentieth century, however, suggests that any countries wanting to opt out of the system have had to fight their way out. The Cuban revolution was therefore a necessary precondition of the creation and flowering of Cuban science and its biotechnology industry.
The scientific achievements of the Cuban revolution testify that important, high-level scientific work can be performed without being driven by the profit motive. They also show that centralized planning does not necessarily have to follow the ultrabureaucratized model offered by the Soviet Union and China, wherein science primarily serves the interests of strengthening the state and only secondarily concerns itself with the needs of the people. Cuba’s accomplishments are all the more impressive for having been the product of a country with a relatively small economic base, and with the additional handicap of an economic embargo imposed by a powerful and hostile neighboring country.
The Cuban revolution has come closest to realizing the noble goal of a fully human-oriented science. Although Cuba’s small size limits its usefulness as a basis for universal conclusions, its accomplishments in the medical sciences certainly provide reason to believe that science on a world scale could be redirected from its present course as a facilitator of blind economic growth (which primarily serves the interests of small ruling groups that control their countries’ economies) and instead be devoted to improving the wellbeing of entire populations.