Neuroscience, theme parks and a Brazilian named Albert

May 30, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

According to Miguel Nicolelis, it is a common misconception that the Wright brothers invented controlled flight.

They may have invented the aeroplane, he says. But controlled flight? That was discovered by a Brazilian named Alberto Santos Dumont.

What has this got to do with science, technology and the poor? Everything, says Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in the United States.

Santos Dumont was an unschooled coffee planter who simply wanted to fly – and through him, the aeronautics industry was born.

“Imagine how many Santos Dumonts there are, waiting to bring their ideas to fruition,” Nicolelis told an enthused audience. “Human talent is everywhere – it can be found in any corner of the world.”

“Brazil has lots of people and lots of creativity, but it has stayed near the bottom of the innovation curve for years – even though its science budget has doubled in the last 8 years. So what is going on?”

Miguel Nicolelis. Credit: Flickr/UnB Agencia

“We have the 3rd largest IT market in the world right now, but we don’t make the technology, we merely consume it. And it’s not for a lack of potential – look at Santos Dumont.”

It was this idea of hidden, untapped talent that inspired Nicolelis to build a neuroscience research institution, a hands-on science school for children and a women’s health centre in the Brazilian northeast, one of the country’s least developed regions.

At his sprawling site, known as the ‘Campus of the Brain’, the mandate is education for life.

A child’s education begins with their first ultrasound and the prenatal care of mothers. When the health centre first opened, 87 out of 100,000 mothers in the region were dying in childbirth. In 5 years this has fallen to 4 out of 100,000, and the centre now has 12,000 appointments a year.

At the school, there are no classrooms – only laboratories. Children learn about science by doing it; by “becoming a scientist”.

They trialled the school with 1,500 children from some of the most deprived areas in the region. Nicolelis showed us a picture of some of the recruits. All had grins a mile wide.

“You see that? They are smiling. These kids actually like to go to school – they arrive an hour before the school opens and sit there waiting to go in.”

“To them it is the best entertainment park they have ever had – and this is the education model we need for the 21st century. We need to educate people to think and to revolutionise the market place. And you only think if you enjoy what you are doing. Most scientists remain scientists [despite the] low pay because it is a lot of fun.”

Children learn astronomy, computer science, physics and robotics, as well as geography and history to encourage them to study their culture and appreciate their heritage.

Everything used in classroom experiments, except the most technical equipment, is built by the children. Nicolelis quipped that there are no longer any electrical fires in the communities because the children fix any bugs themselves.

The drop-out rate is just 2% – compared to the usual 56% before secondary school and 42% of the remainder before university – and many of the students are being accepted into the country’s best universities. Graduates students are catered for too, at the research institute, where top lecturers from around the world come to teach for two months at a time.

Nicolelis was so enthusiastic, so delightfully eccentric, and his talk so inspiring, that it was very easy to get swept away.

Thankfully, one member of the audience brought me back by pointing out the potential difficulties in scaling up a “21st century theme park” where the excitement lies in tangible, hands-on activities. Nicolelis said that they plan on creating virtual labs that simulate microscopes, telescopes and so on so that anywhere – even a bathroom or a garage – can become an environment of learning.

Not quite the same. Still, I know many people who wouldn’t mind being 12 again to have a chance at an educational experience that doesn’t involve rote learning.

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

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. 

Technological innovation in the Francophonie

May 29, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

At this morning’s plenary we had the opportunity to hear about some of the research taking place at EPFL (the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne) ­– UNESCO Chair for Technologies in Development and our conference host.

One project that particularly piqued my interest was RESCIF – the Francophone Network of Excellence in Engineering Sciences.

Launched last year, the network harnesses French-speaking culture as a tool for innovation in technology.

RESCIF has fostered partnerships between leading research institutions in Francophonie countries around the world, including Cameroon, Haiti, Sengal and Vietnam to name a few, forming joint laboratories, educational programmes and internships for young engineers, partnerships with industry, and solidarity action in Haiti to help rebuild two universities that were destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Its chosen areas of focus are food security, nutrition, and energy and water in the context of climate change.

RESCIF is putting the spotlight on Francophone research. Credit: ILRI

In its own words, RESCIF was created on four assumptions:

  1. That emerging countries will increase in number over the next decades;
  2. That science and technology will play an increasingly important role in their future development;
  3. That new forms of partnership with the universities of these countries are therefore possible and desirable;
  4. That these partnerships are the best means of curbing the brain drain currently penalizing their development.

Philippe Gillet, EPFL’s vice-president for academic affairs, told us this morning that the goal of the network is to develop innovative technologies that are most essential for developing countries.

Sometimes, what developed nations with good intentions define as “essential” is far removed from the real needs of the poor. So I was relieved when Gillet went on to clarify that such technologies must be affordable to acquire and maintain; durable and sustainable; adapted to the context (cue silent “hurrah” from yours truly); and scientifically valid.

There must be real vision on how any proposed technologies will be implemented in the field, he said.

Now that’s research I can get on board with.

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

What is an appropriate technology?

May 29, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

It’s day one of Tech4Dev 2012, and the question on everyone’s lips is ­­- “What is an appropriate technology?”

I sat in on some fascinating presentations that aimed to answer this question by looking at water management technologies in India and Africa.

The one that provided the most food for thought was a talk by Ravinder Malik from the New Delhi branch of the International Water Management Institute.

Presenting research on the use of treadle pumps in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal, India, Malik broke the question down and asked “Who are technologies appropriate for, the promoters or the users?”

Treadle pumps are simple and cheap – but that doesn’t mean farmers want them. Credit: Mukul Soni

Treadle pumps use body weight and leg muscles to lift water from a depth of up to eight metres for use in irrigation. They were introduced in Bangladesh to great success in 1985, boosting crop productivity and helping to lift small farmers out of poverty. To date, 1.5 million of the pumps have been sold across the country.

On the strength of this success, the pumps were introduced and disseminated in India from the mid-1990s onwards.

But nearly 15 years later, says Malik, “promoters and donors are assuming status quo conditions [in India] and pouring huge amounts of money into treadle pumps”.

They are equating sales with demand, assuming that ownership implies usage – but rural India’s socioeconomic and technological landscape has changed.

Treadle pumps succeeded for a variety of reasons, including their simple design and their suitability for the conditions at the time – low irrigation water requirements, a lack of electricity in villages, and the high cost or awkwardness (for example, heavy diesel-powered pumps) of alternative technologies.

Nowadays, farmers have access to small, lightweight, fuel-efficient diesel-pumping kits and have improved access to electricity. There are increases in irrigation water requirements that treadle pumps can no longer meet. And there are increasing concerns over drudgery – many family members have refused to tread because of health-related concerns.

In Cooch Behar, just eight per cent of farmers are using the treadle pumps that they originally purchased. They told Malik and his team that they will never go back to using them – even though they are more affordable – preferring instead to buy or rent motorised pumping technologies.

“Low cost and affordability doesn’t mean farmers will accept and adopt,” Malik said, “and sales cannot be used as a proxy for adoption”.

“Treadle pumps have no new takers, they are slowly being phased out. Any more money pumped in is unlikely to serve the intended purpose of improving accessibility of irrigation for small farmers and helping them in improving their income.

“Tech adoption is a dynamic process and an intervention appropriate at one point in time and under given conditions may not remain so.”

He called for regular and independent monitoring in the field to understand the changing landscape of smallholder irrigation and ensure that farmers have access not only to technologies they need – but technologies they want.

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

Tech4Dev 2012 begins soon

May 28, 2012

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

This week (29–31 May) I will be attending the 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference, entitled ‘Technologies for Sustainable Development: A Way to Reduce Poverty?’

Credit: EPFL

The last Tech4Dev conference, held in February 2010 in Lausanne, Switzerland, looked at the broad question of how technological innovation can help the developing world.

Now, more than two years later, researchers and practitioners from around the globe are gathering on the shores of Lake Geneva once more to take this question to a more concrete level and explore how they can best work together to alleviate the needs of the poor through the direct application of technology.

According to the Cooperation and Development Center (CODEV) — a UNESCO Chair in Technologies for Development, and conference host — scientific research “remains often too detached from reality, particularly in developing and emerging countries. Thus, the challenge is to link scientific research and development practices in order to develop a win-win situation in which science and technologies can assist practitioners as well as reply to social needs”.

All well and good — but how to address such a formidable challenge?

Tech4Dev 2012 aims to do so by encouraging participants to share their experiences in four areas: defining “appropriate” technologies that respond to social needs and realities; establishing cross-disciplinary partnerships; and improving technology transfer and supporting the co-creation of technologies.

At the end of what I hope will be three days of inspiring lessons from the field and lively debate, a statement will be published identifying ten gaps and needs for field applications to improve the exchange of knowledge between researchers and practitioners.

I will be bringing you daily blog posts on the latest research being presented and discussions emerging from sessions such as ‘Research that Considers the Real Needs of the Forgotten Poor’, a cause particularly close to my heart.

Here’s hoping that Tech4Dev 2012 paves the way for new ideas, new partnerships — and new technologies that reach, and benefit, those who most need them.

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

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