How NASA’s space travel mission could improve development on Earth

March 11, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Meetings on research infrastructure are usually sober affairs — even the word infrastructure is pretty off-putting.

So there was some excitement when Mae Jamieson, America’s first female black astronaut, chose to address a workshop on Europe-African collaboration on building such infrastructures.

Jamieson’s message, delivered appropriately on International Women’s Day, itself had an exotic dimension.

She was visiting Brussels as part of a European trip to promote the Starship 100 mission. This is a futuristic programme, financed partly by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and partly by the US military, to prepare the groundwork for a possible mission outside the solar system within the next 100 years.

The idea sounds remote from contemporary concerns. But Jamieson affairs — whose impressive CV includes both an engineering degree and more than two years working as a doctor with the Peace Corps in Liberia affairs — is keen to argue that Starship 100 has direct relevance to the modern world, including the problems facing developing countries.

“We are talking about building the capacities required for humans to travel to the stars, not about launching an actual mission,” Jamieson told the workshop, which was being held as part of the meeting EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration.

“And we are using this to help force the development of technologies that could prove useful to this mission affairs — but may also have applications to meeting the needs of today.”

She later explained to SciDev.Net that although Starship 100 is primarily about building the technological capacity to travel to the stars, “everything we will need is also related to what we need to survive on earth”.

For example, astronauts engaged in a multi-year mission would require new, non-polluting sources of energy. They would also need to “look at health in a different way”, since they would not have immediate access to advanced medical skills and complex medical facilities.

Asked how much interest she felt there would be in a manned voyage to the stars for those living in poverty in the developing world, she points to the mission’s logo, which has an image of the constellation Canopus.

“This is a constellation that appears over the Rift Valley [in East Africa], where it is familiar to people,” she explains. “Every group of people in the world has its astronomers; it is not an activity confined to the industrialised west.”

Exotic as it may sound, we are likely to hear more of Starship 100, which already has the support of former president Bill Clinton, even in the context of science and development.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Europe seeks to provide the mould for use of animals in research

March 8, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Can tough European standards on the use of animals in research, from mice to primates, become the basis of a global harmonisation of the rules protecting animals in such situations – including in developing countries?

This was the big question hanging over discussion of the global implementation of what are known as the ‘3Rs’ – the goals of replacement, refinement and reduction of the use of animals – during a session held as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Speakers described a wide differences in attitudes towards the use of animals across the world.

But they also pointed out that the more that researchers from developing countries who have trained in the West return to their countries, the more they can spread the message that good science and animal welfare can go hand in hand.

Richard Fosse, vice-president for laboratory animal science with the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, pointed out that Asia has a patchwork of cultures and religions that deal with animals in different ways.

For example, India has a long tradition of protecting animals for reasons ranging from its colonial past to the status of animals in the Hindu religion. “The concept of animal welfare is intuitive,” he said.

China in contrast, which currently uses about 12 million animals a year for research purposes, has less of a tradition in doing so, and although the country has a rapidly developing regulatory framework around the use of animals – at least on paper – implementation was “very patchy”.

But the situation was improving, said Fosse, largely because of rapidly growing number of Chinese researchers who are returning from the West with a well-developed notion of what makes good science.

“The notion of animal welfare is now well established, particularly among young scientists, and the idea of an animal ‘suffering’ is no longer difficult to explain.”

Cambodia and Vietnam presented a different challenge, said Fosse. Both countries are currently the source of many of the primates used in Western research laboratories. And as this use is reduced, both countries were now looking at the potential of building up their own research organisations using primates.

Octavio Presgrave from Brazil’s National Institute of Quality Control in Health, described how Latin America has recently seen a dramatic rise in discussions about animal welfare, leading to tighter regulations in countries ranging from Argentina to Cuba.

There was a general agreement, however, that the most advanced animal welfare legislation is in Europe, where EU member states have a long tradition of incorporating the 3Rs into their laws and policies.

The most recent of these was a key directive agreed in 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, which came into force at the beginning of this year.

Thomas Hartung, director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, pointed out that Switzerland – which is not a member of the European Union and not therefore required to follow these standards – had nevertheless agreed to require its pharmaceutical industry to do so.

“Other countries could be persuaded to adopt this approach,” Hartung suggested. He argued that regulators could take a more pro-active role in ensuring that countries which export products to Europe followed good European practice in the use of animals, for example in testing pharmaceutical products.

The lesson that emerged from the session was that developing countries are likely to resent changes if they feel that they are being imposed from the outside, particularly if they conflict with deep-rooted cultural values.

But if scientists in these countries accept the logic of the European approach, combining the needs of high-quality science and animal welfare, they will realise that the two are not necessarily incompatible.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Africa’s inventivity on climate-change shows ‘staggering’ growth, but still scores low on clean energy patents

March 8, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

One of the many areas of contention in the climate change debate is whether the patent system helps or hinders the development of clean energy technologies by allowing the rights to these technologies to be privately owned.

Up to now, there has been little hard data with which to argue the case either way.

But this situation has just been improved – even if no simple conclusion to the broad discussion has yet emerged – by the publication of a report about patents on clean energy technologies in Africa prepared by the European Patent Office (EPO) with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

“This is a very critical area from the patent point of view, because developing new technologies to meet the threat of climate change is a global challenge,” Gerald Owens of the EPO, one of the authors of the report, said at a session during the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

According Owens, analysis of more than 1.5 million patent documents concerning technologies related to climate change revealed that less than one per cent of applications for clean energy technologies during the period 1980 to 2009 had been filed in Africa.

In recent years the situation has been improving. For example, while the global inventive activity during this period – as measured by the patent system – had grown at five per cent a year, in Africa the growth rate was almost twice as high, and for mitigation technologies it has been what the report describes as a “staggering” 59 per cent.

Despite this growth, however, Africa’s share of global inventive activities in climate change and mitigation technologies is still only 0.24 per cent. And of this, says the report, 84 per cent is in South Africa.

Owens pointed out that Africa has vast untapped potential for clean technologies based on energy sources such as hydropower, solar, geothermal, wind and biomass. “For example, it has seven major river systems which could provide enough hydropower for the whole of Africa,” he said.

Harnessing this potential, however, required the development of the appropriate technology.

Mark Radka, head of the energy branch of UNEP, told SciDev.Net that intellectual property issues were “a persistent source of friction” in climate change negotiations because of fears that excessive control over clean technologies was being wielded by patent holders.

“There is a lack of analysis and data, and this is a real barrier to agreement in the technology area,” Radka said. “The lack of progress on intellectual property issues has contributed to the general sclerosis in the negotiations, and the inability of governments to come to an agreement”.

Radka said that this demonstrated the need for a better understanding of the role of patents in promoting clean technologies. The new EPO/UNEP report is intended to contribute to that end.

The full report is available at here.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

COMSTECH makes plea for EU science aid

March 8, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Muslim countries need urgent help from the EU and its scientific community if they are to meet some of their most pressing challenges.

This was the direct plea made to the concluding session of the EU Science conference by Javid Laghari, Coordinator General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).

Despite the 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) possessing 70 per cent of the world’s energy resources and a fifth of its natural resources, 40 per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line, he says.

This situation will only be possible to improve if these countries can solve their problems of food security, health, energy and climate change, he adds.

But they lack the research and technological capacity to do it alone, and thus the political and scientific support of the EU is vital, he says.

“I am here to reach out to the European community to ask for help to build out capacity in science and technology for social and economic development.”

“We need cooperation and collaboration to boost our capacity in crucial areas.”

Speaking to SciDev.Net on the sidelines, Laghari said that the real problem was not the scientific community, as lots of individual partnerships already exist.

It was the EU which needed to begin showing political leadership, if research collaboration was to have the necessary impact in OIC countries, he added.

Political willpower was the only hurdle standing in the way of fruitful collaboration, he believed.

He was hopeful that the new Horizon 2020 funding framework could help to galvanise the EU support for capacity building in OIC countries, and urged the whole scientific and political community to get behind it.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

How green energy can boost radioastronomy — and vice versa

March 7, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

At first sight, radioastronomy and renewable energy might seem strange bedfellows.

But there’s a growing realisation – or perhaps one should say a growing argument – that large radioastronomy facilities can become a driver for the use of renewable energy by remote communities across the developing world.

The logic was explained by Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, of the Astrophysics Institute of Andalucía in Spain, speaking at a session on joint collaboration between Europe and Africa in radioastronomy as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Verdes-Montenegro outlined several reasons why renewable energy technologies will be critical for major radioastronomy facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which has been approved for construction in Africa and Australia.

“One factor is the need to provide large amounts of power to a concentration of instrumentation located far from any energy grid,” she said.

As a result, the SKA project is already looking at how it can exploit a range of renewable energies – such as solar energy and biomass – to produce electricity in situ.

It is also looking at developing new storage techniques, given that the telescopes will be operating 24 hours a day, and stored power will be required at night when solar energy is not available.

A second link to renewable energy, Verdes-Montenegro tells SciDev.Net, is that radioastronomy facilities require locations free from the radio interference that can be created by high capacity power lines.

“We have the chance to see SKA become the prototype of large mega-science infrastructures with zero per cent carbon footprints,” says Verdes-Montenegro. “It is a unique opportunity to explore the universe using green energy.”

But she is quick to point out that the astronomers will not be the only ones who would benefit.  “There will also be an opportunity for remote local populations to get direct benefits through access to energy supplies,” she says.

“Eventually 1.6 billion people around the world – the number who are currently not on the electricity grid – could benefit from the development of radioastronomy facilities,” says Verdes-Montenegro.

European energy researchers may also benefit. She says that Spain – which has recently been at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources – is leading a consortium that plans to bid for the contract to provide power for the South African facility.

Both arguments will come in handy for those who say SKA will provide wide socio-economic benefits – a case that needs to be made convincingly if full funding for the project is going to be raised, which remains far from certain.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Why international collaboration has become essential to capacity building

March 7, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Scientists have long collaborated with their peers across national boundaries. In the past, however, the reason has been largely scientific: collaboration between the best scientific minds – wherever they live – has been seen as producing the best science.

More recently a different theme has emerged, with particular importance for developing countries. This is the idea that international collaboration is essential for building global scientific capacity; and that the stronger this capacity, the better placed the world will be to solve the problems it faces.

The importance of this new theme was highlighted in a brief but charged address by Thomas Auf der Heyde, deputy director-general at South Africa’s Department for Science and Technology, to the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Auf der Heyde pointed out that in recent years, the European Union – as well as its member states — have played an increasingly important role in supporting science capacity building in the developing world.

“It is essential that the focus of this collaboration should continue under Horizon 2020,” he said – a reference to the new multi-year programme of support for science and technology which has just been approved by the Council of Ministers.

“Why should European researchers collaborate with researchers outside Europe, including developing countries?” he asked. The simplest reason was that it was morally right to do so.

But there were three other reasons.

The first was that international collaborative efforts were “both rational and purposeful”.

“There is no point in Europe opening up its research systems and support programmes to the world, and trying to link together the full human potential for using research to solve global problems, if it does not help to boost scientific capacity in countries which do not have it yet,” Auf der Heyde said.

“It would be like claiming to develop a sport in a country, but only focussing on a small part of the population, rather than the whole population. That would be absurd.”

The second reason was that tackling global challenges required global cooperation. “If we are going to accept that different parts of the globe will contribute in different but equally important ways to solving global problems, the capacity to contribute to those solutions also needs to be distributed globally.”

The third reason for intervening in capacity development, Auf der Heyde said, was self-interest, based on the fact that that research and development capacity was closely linked to economic development.

If the future of the world’s economy depended on the development of economic activity in parts of the world that were currently “economically dark”, it made sense to help build the science and technology capacity of such countries, to enable them to escape their situation.

All arguments that will come in useful in ensuring that the interests of developing countries are well represented in battles over how the Horizon 2020 pie is divided up.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Horizon 2020 ‘should include funding for outreach activities’

March 6, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Science has the ability to generate revolutionary inventions and innovative ideas that can have a tangible impact on people’s quality of life.

But it can also awe and inspire. And it is this side to scientific discovery that is often undervalued and underutilised by funders and policymakers, according to experts here at the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Speaking at a side event concerning the global development impact of astronomy, Kevin Govender, director of the International Astronomy Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), says that to encourage the next level of innovators to pursue scientific careers, support must be given to science that engages people.

“It’s great to create a new device or product, but people need to be inspired to get the training in the first place if science capacity is to develop,” he tells SciDev.Net at the sidelines of the conference.

“Of course we need to invest in new technology and basic research, but at the same time, if we leave out the inspirational aspect [of science] we are going to have a gap in the innovation landscape that will be very hard to fill.”

This knock-on effect of inspiration can be seen within the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) astronomy project — a network of radio telescopes to be spread across sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, says Govender.

Since it was announced that Kenya would host part of this network, students taking some physics courses at the University of Nairobi doubled “almost overnight”.

But traditionally, he says, EU funding has prioritised basic research over community engagement and education projects.

In order to maximise and sustain the scientific capacity building, the Horizon 2020 funding framework needs to pay attention to these important projects, he adds.

He would like to see language in the final agreement that highlights the importance of education and the public understanding of science for capacity building and research, with commitments to engage in outreach activities eventually built into funding requirements.

Anita Loots, Associate Director for Science and Engineering for the SKA in Africa, agrees that modest investment beyond the physical needs of projects can be significant.

“I think current investment into scientific infrastructure is very good, but for a little bit extra money spent on outreach, you can do a huge amount to uplift communities through science, especially in Africa,” she says.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Rent-a-satellite: data on demand for developing countries

March 6, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

Data has always been a cornerstone of scientific research, so it is no surprise that it plays a prominent role in scientific discussions.

However, a quick glance at the topics of this conference — the importance of biobanks to store genetic information and data protection, for example — give a clue to how the scientific community is beginning to see this product of scientific enquiry.

Creating data is no longer the problem (projects like the Large Hadron Collider already produce it in enormous quantities). It is how to use it effectively that matters the most.

How can data be pooled, organised and accessed are the questions now being asked.

One of these areas with vast, and underused, datasets is satellite imagery and measurements, according to Bart de Lathouwer, Director of Interoperability Programs, at the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), a member-funded non-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing access to geospatial information.

To help democratise this data, which was collected mostly with taxpayer money, the OGC launched Group on Earth Observations System of Systems (GEOSS) in 2005, he says.

Through the GEOSS portal, anyone with a computer can access data collected by the governments and international organisations of 89 Group on Earth Observations (GEO) member countries and the European Commission, with licensing conditions on some data being the only restrictions of use.

Now firmly established, GEOSS is turning its attention to the developing world, he adds.

“We want to build capacity for developing countries to build on what others have done before so they can reap the benefits on a limited budget,” de Lathouwer says.

In practice, this will involve capacity building, both in installing computer systems capable of making best use of GEOSS data, and training individuals to use satellite tracking software.

Successful collaborations with Chile will be followed by a number of developing countries, such as Uganda and United Arab Emirates, says de Lathouwer.

Not only this, but GEOSS is working to develop a satellite planning service, which will enable users  to track satellites and request data as they pass over head.

This will be particularly useful for organisations or governments without regular access to satellites in areas such as disaster management, where having rapid imagery of affected areas is essential for planning a response, says de Lathouwer.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Too much bureaucracy in EU’s research grants ‘putting off prospective applicants’

March 5, 2013

Jan Piotrowski

Jan Piotrowski
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

The opening sessions of the conference were full of optimism over the future of international science and technology (S&T) research collaboration. Looking forward, much hope is being placed on the EU’s new framework for funding scientific research — Horizon 2020 — to be launched in 2014.

One of the 69 billion euro project’s aims is to enhance the research and development, and innovation capacities of developing nations.

This is certainly an important initiative, but behind the scenes, there are concerns over how effective Horizon 2020 will be in fostering capacity-building in the developing world.

The problem does not lie in commitment of the EU and international partners, says Zainab Osman Director of Institute of Technology Research in Sudan, as both sides acknowledge the benefits to be gained.

Rather it is the over-complexity of the application process act as a barrier to researchers wanting to receive funding.

Speaking outside of a side event, aimed at guiding researchers through the Horizon 2020 application process, Osman says that the fact she needs to attend, even with her experience of the European research environment, is proof that the procedure is inaccessible.

“If the application process can be streamlined, it will encourage a lot of scientists to participate and to apply for the grant.”

“But the EU needs to take leadership on this issue, but at the moment there has not been enough effort to make clear what is involved,” she adds.

Amin Soebanrio, Indonesia’s deputy Minister for Science and Technology Networks, also acknowledged the need to find a way to make the bureaucracy understandable.

“Researchers can be put off by applying for EU grants as they think the complex process will slow down their work,” he says.

But, he adds, for collaboration to be possible there also has to be trust on both sides, which is undermined by the fact that EU scientists often ignore the local scientific regulations, choosing to adhere only to the EU regulations identified in the grant proposal.

This issue must be addressed to encourage local scientists to engage with the EU in collaborative project, he adds.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Scientists gather in Brussels to explore new EU funding opportunities

March 5, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

Last month, the heads of the 27 countries belonging to the European Union (EU) approved a budget for activities to be funded through the European Commission over the next seven years.

Included in this was approval of the latest multi-year programme for activities concerning research and technology. Known as the Framework Programme since its launch in the early 1980s, this now has the less prosaic title of Horizon 2020, and will last from 2014 to 2020.

Like all of the other commission’s programmes, the budget for Horizon 2020 is less than had been hoped. Originally the commission had asked for €80 billion ($104 billion); last month’s decision – made under pressure from the United Kingdom and others to keep down costs, and still needing approval by the European Parliament – only approved just over €70 billion.

But that is still a substantial amount of money. And a significant amount will be spent on research projects outside Europe, based on the idea that not only can European science benefit directly from working with non-European collaborators, but also that joint research can promote other objectives – including providing assistance to developing countries.

Now that the green light has been given, science policymakers, scientists and industry representatives from 100 different countries, including many from the developing world, are meeting in Brussels this week to hear about the new funding opportunities under Horizon 2020, and to prepare their bids for a slice of the action.

The occasion is a five-day conference on ‘EU Science: Global Challenges, Global Collaboration’ (ES:GC2) taking place in the European Parliament.

Topics to be covered range widely, from health research to space-related R&D. They will address not only research itself, but a wide spectrum of research-related policies and regulations, such as data protection, clinical trials, medical devices and regulatory safety.

But ES:GC2 will not just be a talking shop. There will be training sessions on topics from preparing project proposals for Horizon 2020 funding proposals, to the use patent data. And there will be many opportunities for those attending to network with potential partners.

The last two days of the meeting will also see a High-level Conference on ‘Promoting Africa-EU Research Infrastructure Partnerships’. This will bring together scientists, industry representatives and policymakers to discuss how best to facilitate cooperation between Africa Europe in building infrastructure for science, technology and innovation.

SciDev.Net will be providing regular reports from the meeting. And will be keeping a close ear to the ground to hear how developing countries are likely to benefit from the new round of EU funding.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

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