The 20th century was a period of immense material progress - driven by the explosive growth of science and technology and characterized by the rapid internationalization of the world science and technology enterprise. The advent and growth of digital telecommunications has accelerated the globalization of scientific research through support for greatly enhanced interaction among scientists at distant sites and the development of new organizational structures for research.
"Virtual laboratories" or "collaboratories" are emerging as the key embodiments of this trend that includes the vast international human genome collaboration, the planned construction of long-baseline interferometry laboratories, and global observation networks for the environmental and social sciences. The tools employed are increasingly adapted to health/medical applications and to creative activities in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts.
We adopt a broad perspective and define a virtual laboratory (VL) as "an electronic workspace for distance collaboration and experimentation in research or other creative activity, to generate and deliver results using distributed information and communication technologies." A virtual laboratory is distinguished from a "Real Laboratory" (RL) or a "Traditional Laboratory". However, a virtual laboratory is not viewed as a replacement for, or a competitor with, a real laboratory. Instead, virtual laboratories are possible extensions to real laboratories and open new opportunities not realizable entirely within a real laboratory at an affordable cost.
However, the burgeoning research engine of the northern hemisphere, which has attracted the world's intellectual talent, has not provided equitable benefit to the vast majority of the world's population in the less-developed nations, where many scientists lack proper facilities and equipment for conducting research as well as access to scientific research conducted in other countries. The result is that researchers and scientists in developing countries are not able to collaborate on an equal footing with their peers around the world, retarding work on development-oriented problems and encouraging the "brain drain" phenomenon.
Equitable access of developing country scientists to virtual laboratories holds promise for enabling them to fully participate in and benefit from international scientific research, providing that such VLs take account of the economic and infrastructure constraints of the "digital divide". This objective has been adopted by UNESCO, on the basis of study of the characteristics and challenges of virtual laboratories and their role in development [James P. Vary (ed.). Report of the Expert Meeting on Virtual Laboratories (pdf, doc), organized by the International Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physics (IITAP), Ames, Iowa, 10-12 May 1999. Paris: UNESCO, 2000 (CII-2000/WS/1)].