Serving Humanity

Adapting Science for Development

Mr. Sterling Cole, former IAEA Director General, pours the first load of concrete into the foundations of the new laboratory.

The IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf have lived up to the vision.

When the first concrete was poured on the u-shaped building that would house the "First IAEA Laboratory", hopes were high that this facility would usher in an influx of scientific activity that would would benefit communities around the globe.

Fifty odd years later, the laboratories in Seibersdorf - eight nuclear applications laboratories and a safeguards analytical laboratory - have done just that. Together, these labs have pioneered and applied nuclear-based techniques that address developmental challenges in fields as diverse as food and agriculture, human health, insect pest control, and environmental monitoring.

Not bad for an institution that started out as a "basement laboratory" in the late 1950's. (See related story)

Brief Historical Perspective

In the 50's, the impetus for an IAEA laboratory was a growing need for accurate measurements that could be accepted worldwide, according to Piero Danesi who served as Director of the Seibersdorf Laboratories from 1986-2001.

Thus, in the early years, most of the laboratories work was centred on the measurement of fallout from nuclear testing to be followed by calibration work of nuclear instrumentation, he said.

"The laboratories were built some fifty years ago to conduct experimental activities that support the programmes of the IAEA in different areas," recalls Gabi Voigt who served as Director of the Seibersdorf Laboratories from 2001 to 2011.

Over the years, the activities of the laboratories have continuously evolved in response to the changing landscape of nuclear technologies and applications, as well as the needs and aspirations of IAEA Member States.

"The activities of the laboratories have expanded so much that today they cover the areas of all departments of the IAEA," Ms. Voigt pointed out.

A Three-Pronged Approach

The laboratories support the use of nuclear science and technology in countries that need them through these mechanisms: adaptive research and development; capacity-building and provision of technical services.

Scientists at the labs develop new technologies or adapt existing ones to suit each country's needs. They work with scientists in partner countries to implement and test these techniques under prevailing conditions, and results are fed back for further improvement and validation. This unique feedback loop is what makes the approach so effective, resulting in notable successes in areas such as plant breeding, insect pest control, food preservation and human health. (See related story)

Key to the work of the laboratories are the measurements, evaluation and standardization of instruments and processes. Dosimetry calibrations and auditing services, as well as the growing databank of certified reference materials are of immense value to participating laboratories and clinics all over the world.

Fellowships and training are important components in the work of the laboratories to transfer technology to developing countries. A typical fellowship programme runs for 1-12 months and allow scientiests from developing countries to come to the laboratory for training in their respective fields.

Legions of scientists have availed of this opportunity to work at the laboratories for training in the latest scientific techniques. At the end of their stint, they bring back knowledge gained to their home countries, thereby helping to spread the scientific know-how developed in Seibersdorf to all parts of the globe.

"The Agency laboratories provide an important platform to help Member States increase national capacity," says Qu Liang, Director of the FAO/IAEA Joint Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture.

A number of train-the-trainer workshops, courses and seminars are held at the laboratories each year attracting an average of over 300 fellows from mostly developing countries.

"Our training courses help Member States develop the needed manpower to operate, maintain and repair key nuclear instruments in their respective countries," Meera Venkatesh, Director of the Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences. "This, in turn, promotes the long-term sustainability of their programmes."

Faces Behind the Science

The laboratories today are a dynamic hub for nearly one hundred scientists, technicians, fellows, interns and students from around the world. Along the corridors and in the laboratory rooms in this multi-winged facility, the mantra that pervades is "serving humanity through adaptive science".

There is an oft-quoted adage that an institution is only as strong as the people who work there and their belief in the work they are doing. The sense of mission is evident throughout the IAEA laboratories in Seibersdorf.

"It is really nice to know that what you're doing everyday will eventually save lives," says Hanano Yamada, a young entomologist working at the Insect Pest Control Laboratory.

"The greatest job satisfaction is training people and having people come to the laboratory to learn new things and be able to impart that knowledge," adds Bradley John Till, a geneticist at the Plant Breeding Laboratory.

Looking to the Future

After half a century of operations, the Seibersdorf laboratories are beginning to feel their age. The laboratories are still a haven for pioneering work in food and agriculture, human health, environmental monitoring and in the use of nuclear analytical instruments. But space is getting cramped, and new demands stretch the available resources.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano noted as much in his statement to the IAEA's 56th General Conference in September 2012, vowing to undertake a modernization effort to bring the laboratories to the latest international standards.

Daud Mohamad, Deputy Director General for Nuclear Sciences and Applications, has reiterated this pledge.

"We are developing a plan for the modernization of the laboratories taking into account the changing needs and interests of our Member States, as well as the development of science and technology," he said.

The 50 year anniversary of the IAEA Laboratories in Seibersdorf likewise provides an excellent opportunity for taking stock and for review.

"As we celebrate 50 years of successful, dedicated support, this is also an opportunity to examine what else must be done to build on our achievements and ensure that the laboratories can continue to evolve to support our Member States better," Mr. Mohamad said.

Last update: 2 November 2014