More and better health research is needed in the Arab world

February 25, 2013

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Andrea Rinaldi
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


The day is coming. Tomorrow, 26 February, a meeting on ‘Boosting research for health in the new Arab world’ will begin in Bellagio, north Italy. Before formal discussion kicks off, we asked Hassen Ghannem, senior consultant to the Geneva-based Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) and meeting organizer, about the background and objectives of the conference.

What is the current situation of health research in the Arab countries?

“Policymakers in the developed world understand that research, science and technology are vital components of economic growth and prosperity. But, in the Arab world, translating this realization into policies and actions backed by resource commitments has been a major challenge.

In particular, weaknesses of research for health in the Arab world are seen in three areas: low investment in research and development; weak national health research systems, with considerable fragmentation and little or no coordination at the national and international level; poor scientific production and impact, as a result of low investment and weak systems.”

In your personal opinion, what is to be done to change this situation? Is the Arab Spring going to have a significant impact on the status quo?

“This region is currently experiencing major historical changes with the aspiration to freedom, democracy and more equitable development. Research for health is essential to understanding the current and future projected health needs of the population and developing approaches and solutions that can contribute to health improvements.

Because research for health and national systems of research for health have been weak in the region, this time of change creates a historic opportunity to undertake key strategic actions in research and innovation, with particular focus on strengthening national systems of research for health leading to improvements in health and development. This could be done, among other things, by engaging policymakers and stakeholders to equip them with tools and skills needed for making informed decisions, and by hosting dialogues and consultative meetings to bring a range of stakeholders together to facilitate policy dialogues leading to more commitment to fund research in the region.”

What do you hope will come out of the Bellagio’s meeting?

“The overall goal is to end up with a strong call to action to strengthen system capacity for research and innovation for health in the Arab world, and to develop an effective communication strategy to disseminate and keep this alive until the regional conference that is planned for later this year or 2014.”

Stay tuned.

This blog post is part of our coverage of Boosting Research for Health in the New Arab World meeting which takes place 26 February – 1 March 2013, in Bellagio, Italy. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.


Scientists, engineers and economists must work together

June 12, 2012

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


One of the key messages that permeated the forum yesterday was the idea that there’s a need for new, interdisciplinary and collaborative ways of doing research that would include social scientists, engineers and the economists to tackle the world’s environmental and development problems.

As part of this, there is also a need to include engineering as a link between scientists and the technology’s use in economy, but also in assessing the feasibility of using new technologies in sustainable development and its effects on people (this is where social sciences come in, too).

This echoes the views engineering community expressed in a SciDev.Net news story a few months back – that there’s not enough appreciation of the role a skilled community of engineers play in turning science innovations into usable technologies.

Reginald I. Vachon, from the World Federation of Engineering Organisation, an ICSU partner coordinating the major group on science and technology at Rio+20, said “if we look at the universe, the scientist interacts with the universe; develops knowledge.

“The engineer works with this scientist; and we have economists, social scientists, architects and a lot of others interacting and we come up with a physical technology.”

This technology can be accepted or rejected by the community, and its application will go back to affect the universe.

“Technology is a result of engineering; engineers provide knowledge developed by scientists. Science and technology must be recognized as central elements for sustainable development policy,” Vachon said.

Similarly, Jorge Spitalnik, delivering the message from the president of WFEO said that while sustainable development would require substantial innovation it would also need engineers to analyse the feasibility of those innovative solutions to the challenges of development.

The role of engineers is to provide updated, unbiased and reliable information about technologies, the session heard.

And he added that development and application of technologies will not always be culturally accepted and, so, will require social scientists to research uptake of innovative technologies.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.


Looking beyond the technical

May 30, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net


Today, at the session ‘Research that Considers the Real Needs of the Forgotten Poor’, I got to hear about the rich discussions on appropriate technology that had taken place in the rest of yesterday’s workshops.

Workshop chairs were given the unenviable task of providing us with 5-minute summaries of the proceedings and, in the process, attempting to pin down what exactly an appropriate technology is.

Anna Crole-Rees of agricultural organisation CRC4change offered a potential definition – a technology that is “socially, culturally and economically accepted by beneficiaries”.

Cultural preference are a key factor when developing technologies for the poor. Credit: Flickr/orange tuesday

“We have a pool of solutions, but we need to think about how to disseminate them and customise them for various geographical settings,” she said.

There was knowing laughter around the room when she called on researchers to think not only about accumulating a list of publications but also about how to turn their invention into an innovation.

“We must value the innovation [rather than] the invention. Innovation is an [invention] that has been implemented and is creating impact.”

Pierre Philippe of the organisation Terre des Homme, which works to boost the living conditions of children around the world, echoed her sentiments with a plea to researchers to remain humble and never lose sight of the project goal – acknowledging that the balance between self-interest and the interests of the poor can often be a difficult one to strike.

He reminded us that technology is still mistakenly regarded as a magic bullet, and that this bullet often responds to needs that are not designed by or for the poor.

“Technology must be context-specific and user-specific. It must take as many cultural particularities, demands and needs into account as possible,” Philippe said.

Other discussions emanating from the workshop sessions included calls for transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, the development of local research capacity, feasibility studies that include beneficiaries from the very beginning, business models for implementing new technologies, and training locals in the use of new technologies to help ensure sustainability.

I do not personally think it is possible to provide a textbook definition of an appropriate technology – it’s just too context-specific to be narrowed down in that way.

However, I did leave the session feeling encouraged that, despite the wide range of topics covered, from climate change and energy to water and sanitation, Tech4Dev participants are, for the most part, on the same page, calling for holistic approaches to the development of new technologies for the poor that look beyond the mere technical and create a transparent dialogue with beneficiaries.

Bring on the manifesto.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 


Beyond Forum 2012: some final reflections

April 29, 2012

David Dickson

David Dickson


There’s been much talk in Cape Town at Forum 2012 over the past week of the need for a paradigm change in thinking about health research for development.

Certainly the concept is a useful one to describe the switch from an approach focussed primarily on the allocation of research resources, to one that addresses the need to build systems of innovation in the health field (as elsewhere).

It helps us move beyond a fixation with the famous 90/10 imbalance between research expenditure on developed and developing world health priorities, to embrace a wider perspective.

But at the end of three days of lively discussions, I remained unclear whether talking about “Beyond aid” – the theme of the meeting – represented a radical idea, or a useful way of labelling a set of trends that have been in motion for some time, and identifying the general direction in which they point.

Either way, however, such a discussion is timely.

First, as Carl Ijsselmuiden, executive director of the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), the main organiser of the conference, pointed out in his opening remarks, it captures the growing feeling that “foreign aid as hand-outs to the poor” is no longer workable.

The approach may not be one that wins many votes for aid-providing governments. But in the long-term, these realise that “foreign aid as capacity building” is much more likely to produce lasting results.

 Second, talking about what happens next – particularly in an area such as health research and innovation, and at a time when external sources of funding are drying up – provides a spur to developing country governments to address their own responsibilities.

Ending on an up-note: the singer Princess Chaka Chaka, UN Goodwill Ambassador and a champion of Africa's fight against malaria, leads participants of Forum 2012 in a farewell chorus (Gabi Falanga)

This has both funding and policy implications. Health research spending needs to become a higher priority for these governments. And they need to create the incentives that will allow the result of this research to be translated into medical products – such as drugs – and services.

Finally, there is the pragmatic issue that, as aid budgets start falling in many developed countries as a result of their financial difficulties, anything that promises to “do more with less” with what funding remains available becomes increasingly attractive.

Moving from “aid as hand-out” to “aid as capacity building” does just that.

So, three good reasons for embracing the concept of a paradigm change. But it also became clear in the Forum 2012 discussions that there are reasons for not expecting too much, too soon.

There may be consensus on what needs to change. But this consensus does not necessarily extend to agreement on what this change should be.

For example, those seeking a new international convention on health research and development argue that it is needed to make up for the failure of the market system to provide developing countries with access to medicines at affordable prices.

Pharmaceutical companies may agree that this is a challenge. And that they need to work with governments – and aid agencies – to tackle it. But their interests ultimately lie in benefitting from the market, not in seeing alternatives put in place.

Similarly health ministers may be persuaded of the arguments for developing home-grown health industries, better equipped to meet local health needs.

But the people who really need convincing work in finance ministries. And the financial case for operating in a new way, rather than, for example, just importing technologies from abroad, is not always self-evident.

Paradigms get embedded in social – and political – systems. Changing them is not just a question of rational debate (even in science). It also requires challenging the interests that the old paradigm served.  And it can have costs attached.

So, big challenges ahead. The major contribution of Forum 2012 was to help cement the idea that “aid for capacity building” is the new mantra that needs to frame aid and government policies, in developed and developing countries alike.

Also that, as in fields such as agriculture and energy, health needs to move away from the idea that developments are research-driven, to recognising that research is one component of a holistic system of innovation – each part of which needs to be addressed.

The immediate task, as always, is to work out what all this means in practice, identifying needs and opportunities, and assessing the potential contributions of all interested parties (including the media).

Not quite the “Beyond aid” vision that the organisers are aiming for. But a step in that direction.

David Dickson is editor of SciDev.Net

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


Science centres and museums at PCST 2012

April 20, 2012

Luisa Massarani

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net


Marzia Mazzonetto, Ecsite Project Coordinator and my good friend after years of working together in science communication, heard that I was writing a blog on PCST 2012 and got “jealous” — in the good sense, of course. She has attended several sessions on science centres and museums during the conference and has written a post for us. Cool, isn’t it? Here it is:

Science centres and museums all over the world are one of the places where public communication of science and technology is put into practice. They were also the focus of some of the several presentations that have been given during the two intense days of the PCST conference.

Different issues have been raised by the experts from the field, showing that science centres and museums face similar challenges and innovation needs as the rest of the wide science communication community.

One of the questions that was asked and discussed during these sessions was how science centres are and should be forums for communicating controversial scientific issues.

Underwear in a 2010 exhibition at the State History Museum in Moscow, Russia

Catherine Franche, director of Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, mentioned a controversial list recently published in the US about objects that should never be shown in museums, which even included such items as underwear or images of naked human bodies.

How can be science explained in museums without being able to show some of the basic elements of biology and the world around us?

Sharon Ament, director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum in London, United Kingdom, presented some interesting examples of how her museum managed recently to use objects from its own collections to present an exhibition and associated activities on controversial topics such as slavery, evolution and sex.

Homo Habilis skull from a 2009 exhibition at London's Natural History Museum

The environment was a key theme of several presentations.  It’s not just journalists who face the pressure of reporting on environmental issues; museum experts and researchers also fear a lack of real connection between what is being shown and told and the critical issues with which to engage the public.

A interesting presentation on the topic was given by Joëlle Le Marec, from the Université Paris Diderot in France, during a highly multicultural session entitled “On the meaning of participation and democracy in different cultural and social contexts”.

Joëlle talked about how the theme of the environment “entered” science museums in France. She said that while in the 1970s and 80s environmental issues were presented as elements of reflection between inhabitants and their own territories, nowadays the environment is presented as a scientific object, more closely related to progress and international development and events rather than something connected to local issues.

Butterfly from Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Is this new narrative of environment in science centres contributing to making people feel like environmental issues are something very far away from them?

Several other sessions at PCST 2012 have offered interesting experiences and studies coming from activities in science museums on topics such as evolution, genetically modified organisms and climate change. One more session worth mentioning was “Science and governance in a knowledge society: Research and best practices on the role of science centres and museums”.

Organising activities and exhibitions in a museum means a lot of work but it’s also fun, interesting and sometimes very difficult and challenging. Paola Rodari, project manager at Sissa Medialab in Trieste, Italy — and an expert in museum studies — said something that museums should never stop doing is evaluation; reflecting and possibly researching the effectiveness of the exhibitions and activities that they offer.

Museums are places where people can get together to discuss, dialogue and share opinions on science issues, but also contribute directly to the museum’s growth by sharing their hopes and expectations. They are also places where, in some instances, visitors can interact directly with scientists who have labs and run research directly inside the museum complex (as is the case with the Nature Live Labs at the Natural History Museum in London).

A young visitor to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the United States

How to evaluate and learn more about how these activities and issues are pushing science centres and museums to evolve, and how they are directly influencing science research and science policy is food for thought for future PCST conferences for sure!

This blog post is part of our Public Communication of Science & Technology (PCST2012) conference coverage.


Final day of Forum urges ‘creative wealth’ and e-learning strategies

April 3, 2012

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Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net


African countries are being asked to use science, technology and innovation to create different, more inclusive forms of wealth that benefit entire societies and are more sustainable.

Under-development on the continent can be addressed by reduced reliance on inherited forms of wealth such as oil and minerals, and by shifting to “created” wealth through the application of science, technology and innovation, the Africa ST&I forum heard on its final day today.

“Science and innovation will create not only sustainable but equitable wealth for all in Africa,” said Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank (ADB) at the ministerial session of the forum.

“Created wealth has the potential to accelerate development and reduce inequality, as opposed to inherited wealth which fuels inequalities and at times sparks conflict in Africa,” he added.

Kaberuka said the bank has identified and is funding ST&I initiatives aimed at spurring economic development on the continent, alongside its investments in other sectors such as water, energy and infrastructure development.

He advised universities in Africa to place greater emphasis on e-learning education approaches, to help bridge the gaps resulting from a continent-wide shortage of qualified lecturers and the high number of university students.

“It would make a lot a sense to use e-learning in universities instead of having one lecturer teaching 1,000 students, resulting in poorly qualified graduates,” Kaberuka said.

By 2030, Africa stands to benefit from “demographic dividends”, as it is estimated a quarter of the world’s youth population will be Africans – but the opportunity to take advantage of this workforce will be lost if they don’t receive the education and skills training necessary to innovate and become entrepreneurs.

The ADB boss noted that some Asian counties have effectively utilised their large youth populations, with deliberate strategies to provide skills training and jobs, and said African countries need to perform the same task.

UNESCO director Irina Bokova told the meeting that UNESCO is helping African countries draft and reform their STI policies to align them with demands of current times, with a particular focus on grants and rewards for innovations for young scientists and women.


Declarations, dancing… but will the Forum deliver action?

April 3, 2012

Ochieng’ Ogodo

Ochieng’ Ogodo
Sub-Saharan Africa regional news editor, SciDev.Net


In an evening of a cosy buffet and free flowing drinks, many at the Forum’s conference dinner discussed Africa’s love of conferences and the lack of implementation of their outcomes.

Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Margaret Kamar, who was the host, could have not been more apt in terming the continent “a sleeping giant with tons of declarations with nothing being done to fulfil them.”

And she said she hoped that at the end of the Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation that scenario would change.

“I hope tomorrow will mark the end of declarations for Africa and we must translate these outcomes into development,” she said.

She had some food for thought for the delegates, that unlocking the continent’s potential won’t come from meetings and resolutions but on the ability of her people to wake up the giant and give it the much needed push to development.

“It’s time for science, technology and innovation in Africa and there is no short cut. We must do it. We want solutions that will work. Practical solutions for practical problems,” Kamar said.

The dinner was also a chance for delegates to relax after a long day’s deliberations, with African beats belching out from big speakers.  There was talents galore in footwork, and some very intricate and rare dance steps.  It was a reminder that everyone there, irrespective of their stations in public life — academics, diplomats, and even journalists like me — have many other gifts… including dancing.

Nonetheless, Kamar’s remarks echoed what has been said in many other places, at other meetings in other posh hotels, where excellent declarations have been made that rarely translate into tangible solutions for Africa’s people, the majority of whom are trapped in abject poverty.

Africa can only come unstuck with a paradigm shift, not business as usual.

We are now waiting to see how — and whether — this Nairobi meeting that had at its theme the promotion of Youth Employment, Human Capital Development and Inclusive growth will contribute to bringing about real change.


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