Health research funding is no gambling matter

April 25, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan

While many country representatives described to the Forum 2012 meeting their battles to create a flow of financing for health research, an unusual problem has come up in Colombia: how to make it stop.

Mery Barragan Avila, head of the research division at Columbia’s Department of Science, Technology and Innovation’s research division, told a session at the meeting that being selected as a recipient for the funds derived from a tax on gambling had created its own share of problems.

Health research funding should not be left to chance (Credit: Flickr/sincerelyhiten)

“It was like winning the lottery,” she said of the unexpected windfall. But problems followed, as the department lacked the capacity to manage the funding.

In addition, the stipulation that royalties remained in the regions in which gambling took place had also created conflicts – and the potential for unequal treatment – between the regions.

Her example reflected the need for health research to retain government support at its core. Other forms of funding were often erratic, and based on a shorter timescale than that required for effective in-depth health research.

An example from Panama, on the other hand, showed the importance of advocacy, as the research community had made a strong case to government, to donors and to the pharmaceutical industry, emphasising the value of research.

Partnerships with pharmaceutical companies are widely quoted as one way forward, for example by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), but this route has to be navigated with care.

“We have to ensure that we all understand each other, because we all have different aims,” said Catherine Elliot, the MRC’s head of clinical research support. It could take 40 years of research to develop a major breakthrough. But pharmaceutical companies needed research to be translated into results in three to four years, she said.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

How to help Africa rise to the challenge of innovation

April 25, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town

Turning research into innovation is a complex issue. It requires considerable human, financial and other resources. And these must be drawn together by strategies that work within specific local contexts.

At a session at Forum 2012 examining investments that have been made in Africa to address outstanding issues of research and innovation for health and development, Hannah Akuffo, deputy head of the Research Cooperation Unit at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, proposed the creation of a global facility to fund and monitor innovation on the continent.

Anti-malaria bednets in Tanzania: an example of successful African innovation (Credit: Flickr/Prashant Panjiar)

“Governments need to invest innovation, not only in their own countries but also into the continent,” said Akuffo, who believes such a facility could combine practice with training, and both conduct studies on and monitor the evolution of innovation systems.

It would also formulate medium-term strategies and tactics for supporting innovation, and attract partners for collaborative efforts to increase both quantity and quality of innovations, focussing on the need for inclusive development.

Akuffo suggested an international host for such an initiative – ideally an intergovernmental organisation such as UNESO or UNDO – but that there should be a gradual shift of responsibility for specific programmes to the national level.

Partners for regional organisations could come from high-income countries and NGOs. Funding might be drawn from a combination of multinational donors, development banks, donors and international aid organisations involved in science and technology. Partner countries would provide funding out of their regular budgets.

The session was chaired by Peter Ndumbe, responsible for research, publication and library services at the WHO Regional Office for Africa, and included a review of South Africa’s Strategic Management Framework, created to stimulate local health innovation, by Glaudina Loots, director of health innovation at the Department of Science and Technology.

Case studies of successful programmes supporting innovation were presented by Budzanani Tacheba, of the Botswana Innovation Hub, and Hassan Mshinda of the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology.

Tacheba, quoting Steve Jobs’ comment that “innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,”  described how the Botswana initiative is aimed at helping the country to compete in global markets, providing a home for knowledge-intensive, technology-driven businesses.

In Tanzania, Mshinda said that research into the way that insecticide-treated nets contribute to the fight against malaria had led to the creation of a successful manufacturing industry that was currently producing 50% of the global output of bednets.

Research had earlier shown that the nets reduce malaria parasitaemia and anaemia by 60%, and improve child survival rates by 27%. A well-planned programme had led to Tanzania’s doubling the value of its export of nets, from US$50 million in 2008 to US$100 million in 2010, and to an industry that now employs employing 7,000 people.

 Innovation is far from dead on the African continent.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

Lia Labuschagne is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town

Women in science: some progress, but challenges remain

April 24, 2012

Lia Labuschagne

Lia Labuschagne
Freelance journalist working in Cape Town

Women researchers have long explored the frontiers of knowledge, and have in the process made major contributions towards meeting health and development challenges, according to the moderator of a panel discussion at Forum 2012 on the role of women in science in the developing world.

Yet Jill Farrant, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, and an expert on resurrection plants – plants that can ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated state when rehydrated – pointed out that women have not necessarily received recognition for their achievements.

Jill Farrant: women scientists are often not acknowledged (Credit: UNESCO/L'Oreal Foundation)

For example, said Farrant, one of the 2012 winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science, only 16 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women, compared to more than 500 men.

Nashima  Badsha, an advisor to the South African Minister of Science and Technology, said that gender equality was protected by the country’s constitution, and that, especially in higher education, the statistics were encouraging. Women made up most enrolments and graduates in universities, and at PhD level, the number of women was fast approaching that of men.

But these figures masked less encouraging details. For example, women still only accounted for a third of publishing scientists in South Africa, while black women were under-represented in science, and the overall employment of women in higher education was under 18% – below that in other BRICS countries.

In Brazil, according to Claude Pirmez, vice president for research at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, the number of women holding PhDs was growing strongly. But the highest positions in science were still dominated by men – the Brazilian Academy of Science, for example, remained 90% male.

Javie Ssozi, a digital media consultant from Uganda, described how information and communication technologies were giving women access to opportunities and information sharing. For example, rural women farmers could be given information about new agricultural skills or ways to deal with climate change.

But he added that policies were often not gender sensitive, and that projects could be influenced by cultural issues. For example, men often tried to decide when and how women used their mobile phones.

Finally, for Devaki Nambiar, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Public Health Foundation of India, a key issue was the personal safety of women in society. “If you can’t leave your home in safety, how can you make progress in science and technology?” she asked.

But noticeably, all but one member of the discussion panel were females, and they spoke in front of an audience consisting mainly of women.  Perhaps a case of preaching to the converted?

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

Lia Labuschagne

How the mobile telephone is revolutionising global health

April 24, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan
Freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg

The widespread adoption of mobile phones in developing countries is opening up a world of possibilities for the health sector, a session of Forum 2012 devoted to “mobile health” was told.

Expectant mothers in South Africa, Bangladesh and India, for example, are being reached through a mobile phone campaign that sends them health information and continues through to the first year after the birth of a child.

The programme, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), is run by the USAid-supported mHealth and the pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson, and has in its first two years has already reached half of pregnant women in South Africa.

The project already has several sources of revenue, and the intention is that its initial donors will withdraw after two years, leaving it to stand on its own feet.

The session was also told that telecommunications has not only made it possible to reach people in remote areas, but has allowed people to make informed decisions on their health.

“It has allowed us to target low-income women in hard to reach areas, and has also helped in our goal of promoting gender equity,” said USAid advisor Lauren Marks.

Telecommunications has also come to the aid of health in fighting the US$75-billion market in counterfeit medicine.

A system run by mPedigree, a non-profit organsition based in Ghana, allows customers to scratch a panel on a medicine package and text the code to a central authority, which can then verify in seconds whether the medicine is safe.

mPedigree president Bright Simons told the session that this not only saved lives, but had a wider health impact, as counterfeit medicines had contributed to the growing problem of drug resistance.

The real power, he said, was not in the technology, but in the wide range of partners that had come together to create this system. “It’s about sharing accountability,” he added.

Another example, of “mobile health” came from South Africa, which has 75% mobile phone penetration, and where Vodacom had agreed to support 70,000 volunteer community health care workers through its Nompilo project.

By helping them keep track of patient details, the community workers are able to improve the care that they provide. And based on the success of the project, Vodacom is planning to extend it to Kenya and Tanzania.

These were just some of the ways in which the mobile telephone is revolutionising health-care in the developing world. And the future promises to be even brighter.

Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012. 

Julius Caesar, ambition, and gumboot dancing

April 24, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

Most international conferences start with a solemn series of speeches welcoming delegates, describing the importance of the theme, and looking forward to a successful outcome.

But this is South Africa.

The opening session of Forum 2012, which is taking place in Cape Town over the next three days, started with a colourful group of musicians entering the auditorium blowing on instruments made out of animal horns.

Health reseach and gumboots dancing -- a heady mixture (Photo: Gabi Falanga)

It ended with an energetic dance display by the Gumboot Dancers, who gave an exuberant performance derived from musical traditions established within South Africa’s mining communities.

Between these two performances, the country’s Minister for Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, gave an equally impassioned performance.

Pandor’s theme, echoing that of the meeting, was that African countries should be thinking seriously about the implications of moving “beyond aid”, towards a situation where they not only produce the research required to meet their needs (in health as elsewhere), but also generate the capacity to put science into practice through innovation.

This should be done in partnership with the private sector, Naledi said. But not in a way that remains controlled by foreign-owned corporations — in the pharmaceutical sector as elsewhere — as is the case too often at present.

Earlier, Carel Ijsselmuiden, executive director of the Council on Health Research for Development — the main organiser of Forum 2012 — outlined progress already made in this direction.

But he also referred back to a meeting in Lagos in 1989, at which African countries pledged to spend 1 per cent of their gross national product on research and development — a goal that many are still far from reaching.

“Just think what Africa would look like today if that target had been met,” Ijsselmuiden said.

Pandor reminded the audience of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which Mark Anthony describes Caesar’s ambition as a “grievous fault”, in a speech at his funeral.

“We have a great deal of ambition, as Caesar did,” said Pandor. The only way to prevent this ambition from becoming a grievous fault was through practical activity, she said.

Her suggestion? That the next forum identifies 10 to 15 countries in which concrete actions, particularly through developing the capacity to apply science and technology, could move from being aid recipients to self-sustaining economies.

Ten years later, “we would know whether we have been able to lift these countries beyond aid,” said Pandor.

Hopefully the dancing at that point would not be on the grave of unachieved ambitions, but in celebration of “all’s well that ends well”.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012.

After ‘aid’ — what will come next?

April 23, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson
Editor, SciDev.Net

Is it too soon to start planning for a world in which “foreign aid” is a concept of the past? And in which countries across the developing world – even in Africa – are able to stand on their own feet, meeting their own needs and solving their own problems?

Not according to the organisers of Forum 2012, which opens in Cape Town tomorrow, and from which we will be blogging regularly for the next three days.

The subtitle of the meeting says it all: “Beyond Aid: research and innovation as key drivers for health, equity and development”.

In other words, the goal of the forum is to sketch out how enabling developing countries to build their own capacity for research-based innovation holds the key to weaning them away from dependency on external aid.

An ambitious enough goal. But one worth aiming for. And certainly closely aligned with a goal that has been at central to SciDev.Net since we started just over ten years ago, summed up in our own slogan “putting science at the heart of development”.

The main focus of the meeting will be to look at how all this could work for health technology and the treatment of disease, particularly in Southern Africa.

This reflects the fact that the forum has been organised by the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), which merged two years ago with the Global Forum for Health Research (after the latter had imploded in difficult circumstances).

But the message also reflects the desire of COHRED’s ambitious executive director, Carel Ijsselmuiden, to go further and establish home-grown innovation as the model for growth across the whole development spectrum.

Three days of discussion lie ahead, with contributions from a wide range of stakeholders, in particular those who COHRED identifies as “change-makers” – individuals who can make things happen. Young scientists and health workers, representing the voice of the future, will also be given a prominent place on the programme.

The first day — after an introductory session that will include welcomes from both South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, and the Gumboot dancers, something to look forward to — will focus on introducing the major themes, with a particular emphasis on the situation in South Africa.

The second will look at “making it work” for research and innovation. And the third on “the way forward”.

Each topic has lots of meat on it. Plenary and interactive sessions will range from discussion of recommendations to the World Health Organization (WHO) on the possible contents of an international treaty on R&D — which I described in last week’s editorial — to a session that I’m taking part in on Thursday about the role of the media (and particularly social media) in helping change to happen.

So, lots of lively debate to look forward to.

And with Cape Town’s weather looking at its best — even though the locals as complaining that there’s already an autumnal chill in the air — hopes are high that the meeting will be able to take an important step “into the beyond”.

This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012.

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