Calestous Juma: Integrating Scientific Developments with Societal Needs
Calestous Juma, professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, recently published an article entitled “Forget Natural Resource: it’s Science and Tech that will Transform Africa.” The article explains the importance of more closely integrating scientific developments with societal needs.

Juma explains how there is a prevailing view that science is separate from ongoing developments in society. People believe that scientific advances occur removed from society and that it is simply convenient when scientific developments happen to benefit society in some way.

However, Calestous Juma believes that making societal improvement a goal for scientific researchers could net more efficient results. He points to the second law of thermodynamics as an example. While engineers were attempting to improve the steam engine for practical purposes, they ended up coming up with the second law of thermodynamics. Here, a development in scientific theory arose while trying to improve a facet of society.

A clear modern day example of what Juma proposes can be seen in the Grand Challenges initiatives launched by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Grand Challenges Exploration is an initiative that issues a set of challenges twice a year. Researchers apply with ideas they have to solve those challenges, and monetary grants are awarded to the most deserving.

For example, the initiative recently issued challenges to “Design New Analytics Approaches for Malaria Elimination” and to “Explore New Ways to Measure Delivery and Use of Digital Financial Services Data”. Proactively calling upon science to assist in these kinds of societal advancement provides a more streamlined pathway for scientific developments to lead to societal betterment.

Juma also questions the way universities separate the hard sciences from the social sciences in their academic curriculums. If you visit a college, you are likely to see people defining themselves as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) students versus humanities students. This arbitrary distinction carries on to pervade the view of society in general, causing scientific developments to not be as helpful to society as it could be.

Calestous Juma calls for more integration between the various academic disciplines. In real world applications, often one needs a mix of skills from multiple disciplines of study. We need to acknowledge the value of interdisciplinary knowledge moving forward.

Juma proposes what he calls “innovation universities.” These universities would “combine research, teaching, extension and commercialization of new products and services,” giving students the means to work towards scientific advances in the context of societal demands.

Edmond Kim

Photo: Flickr

As the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit begins, the Third World Social Science Reform (WSSR) is meeting to find solutions addressing global poverty and ending inequality. For South Africa, this event will be particularly important as the country seeks to overcome issues of imbalance aross the nation.

The WSSR, which was held from September 13 through September 16, gathered over 850 delegates from 57 countries worldwide to bring social science knowledge to issues plaguing the world today including poverty and inequality, human rights, and the role of civil society action.

The four-day event was themed “Transforming Global Relations for a Just World” suggesting the collaboration from the world’s top researchers and stakeholders could bring about positive action to world problems.

South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor made clear that South African scientists and inventors must work harder to put the continent’s goals in line with the global standard.

“They [scientists and inventors] tend to be an indication of a worrying inequality. We don’t publish; we don’t have a significant numbers of PHDs and we are not innovative enough. We don’t even have new products and we also don’t introduce services. We come off rather dismally,” said Pandor.

This is exactly how Africa as a whole is viewed to the world: under-developed, poor and little-to-no education. Currently, 70 percent of the world’s poor resides in Africa.

This statistic can be changed with the collaboration from ambassadors and representatives to make Sub-Saharan Africa something to boast about. As problems continue to set the country back, there have been many success stories.

Local activist Desmond D’sa from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance believes money should be focused on science & technology projects that can create jobs and be less harmful to the environment.

“Right here in Durban, we have the Moses Mabhida stadium. How many jobs has it created? Is it sustainable? Lots of money is being diverted to Moses Mabhida stadium. We have seen mega projects causing hindrances to climate change. Scientists in this forum need to address this,” says D’sa.

While South Africa continues to find solutions, it will be interesting to see how they incorporate their scientific knowledge and discover new, inventive ways to solve global poverty.

Alexandra Korman

Sources: SABC News, Sunday Independent, World Social Science
Photo: allafrica

Tuberculosis (TB) is often forgotten as a global health threat, but recent advances in molecular technology have health officials optimistic about the future.

It is estimated that one-sixth of all annual deaths caused by infectious diseases result from TB. The second-largest killer behind HIV/AIDS, the disease kills an estimated 4,000 people a day. Sub-Saharan Africa experiences the worst of it, as the infectious disease is the most common cause of death among HIV-positive people. Estimates say that over 1,000 people with HIV die from TB every day.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to TB is detection. Currently, HIV-associated TB is being detected in only half of the estimated number of people who have it. Another issue that arises is weak healthcare coverage, which places an economic burden on poor people. Additionally, a lack of healthcare coverage has an effect on people’s vulnerability to TB and health outcomes from the disease.

However, progress in the fight against TB has been seen over the past two decades. The TB mortality rate fell between 1990 and 2013 by an estimated 45%. In that time, over 60 million people were cured from the disease and 37 million lives were saved. Most of the success has been attributed to a rise in new technology. In fact, such interventions are said to not only save lives, but to be cost-effective, because for every dollar spent there is an estimated $30-$43 return.

Cepheid Inc., a diagnostics company based in California, created one such revolutionary piece of technology. Dubbed GeneXpert, the automated molecular technology has been said to be one of the most significant achievements in decades in regards to TB research.

The device is more accurate and faster than traditional diagnosis methods, such as the out-of-date smear microscopy, which was created a century ago. GeneXpert works by allowing health workers to place gathered sputum samples in cartridges, which in turn are connected to a computer. As a result, the DNA of TB bacteria can be detected within two hours. The device can also identify multidrug-resistant forms of TB.

In addition to being endorsed by the World Health Organization, it attracted the attention of global donors. Many poured in donations to help distribute it around the world.

In May, a study conducted in India showed that by using GeneXpert, the number of bacteriologically confirmed cases increased by 39%.

The problem with the technology, however, is its expense.

Poor people in the developing world, those who are most likely to need GeneXpert, have trouble getting necessary access to the technology. While donors across the world are taking care of the $17,000 price tag associated with each machine, countries are struggling to pay for the cartridges. Each cartridge costs $10, meaning some countries cannot purchase them on a large scale because of a lack of funds. Additionally, GeneXpert requires access to electricity, computers and refrigeration, a difficulty for many TB-prevalent areas.

Even with some of these issues, health officials are still excited with the recent activity. The creation of GeneXpert, as well as rather large investments in the device, have led to more companies starting to develop diagnostic technologies. The hope is that some of these technologies will eliminate the downsides of GeneXpert. According to a report by UNITAID, a global health initiative, there are currently 81 manufacturers running tests with almost 200 potential new products having to do with TB diagnostics.

One such company is Alere Inc. The diagnostics company, based in Massachusetts, is working on a transportable test that would be powered by batteries, giving it the capability of being used portably for an entire day. With the test being portable, the company says that health workers would then have the ability to decide about treatments on the spot, the same place where the diagnosis was made.

The company, which received a $21.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is also working to make the costs of its machine and cartridges less expensive than GeneXpert.

While questions still remain, as Alere has yet to run any type of trials on its technology, those devoted to the fight against TB are still hopeful about the future. Through boosted investments and partnerships between public and private sectors, revolutionary technology has, and will continue to, aid the fight against tuberculosis.

– Matt Wotus

Sources: The Hill, New York Times
Photo: Dr. Dang’s Lab

The Debate on GMOs in Nigeria

A small study conducted seven years ago showed that a majority of Nigerian scientists had low awareness about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their harmful effects. But today, with the help of the Internet and the explosion of social media in Nigeria, people are even more aware.

And with this awareness comes resentment and resistance.

By becoming educated about genetically modified plants, opponents have pointed out their damage to biodiversity. Native plants have become sparse compared to the genetically modified plants that seem to grow with ease.

Opponents have also raised the question over whether consuming genetically modified plants has negative health consequences.

Although Nigerian scientists and GMO supporters reassure that genetically modified food is safe for the consumer, the critics counter that developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe. By taking into account that developed countries have even stronger risk assessment and regulatory systems, there are still many critics in Nigeria.

GMOs have been coined “the Monsanto Poison” in Nigeria because of the Monsanto Company’s role in Agent Orange. This herbicide was used during the Vietnam War by the United States and has had lasting effects on the health of veterans. Agent Orange was strategically used to deplete vegetation cover and as a way to force starvation on the population. This has caused Nigerians to have a generally negative view of GMOs.

However, there are still some scientists and proponents in Nigeria that would like to expand the use of genetically modified plants. By being able to modify the plants, scientists are able to better understand their biology and physiology.

Genetic engineering has also improved crops such as cotton, soybeans, tomatoes, coffee and bananas. Plants can also be modified to have a higher protein content and higher oil yield. This could all improve the nutrition of those that consume them.

Scientists in support of GMOs in Nigeria also note that GMO technology could be a solution to the challenges that face global food production. Climate change, population growth and competition for land have all affected how food is produced and its quantity.

The debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms has been developing for over 40 years. However, if this technology can be scientifically proven to be safe for consumers, GMOs could feed the world’s hungry. The approval of GMOs in Nigeria would not only be a huge success for science, but also for those in need of food.

GMOs could be the key to solving food shortages, but only time will tell if GMOs are deemed safe for consumers.

– Kerri Szulak

Sources: Genetic Literacy Project, Risk Science Center
Photo: biodiverseed

africa science
In 2011, the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) started an initiative called the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). Through the IPA, the AIF awards and encourages innovation and African ingenuity, with the hopes of accelerating economic growth on the continent. AIF focuses on advancements in business, economy, agriculture, and technology. The award’s mission is to:

  • Mobilize leaders from all sectors to fuel African innovation
  • Promote science, technology and engineering across Africa
  • Promote innovation across Africa in key sectors through the competition
  • Encourage entrepreneurs, innovators, funding bodies and business development service providers to exchange ideas and explore innovative business opportunities

The IPA competition awards $150,000 (USD) to those who can provide innovative and market-oriented solutions that are African led. The 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa Awards Ceremony and Gala Dinner took place in Cape Town, South Africa. Three applications were chosen from over 900 teams representing 45 different countries for Best Overall Innovation, Best Business Potential and Best Social Innovation. The award for Best Overall Innovation and an award of $100,000 went to a Cape Town team of entrepreneurs and researchers from AgriProtein Technologies.

AgriProtein devised a new approach to nutrient recycling involving the use of waste and fly larvae to produce natural food for animals. The team has been developing nutrient recycling technology as a solution to the global need for new and sustainable sources of protein.

Nutrient Recycling is a system where farmers collect biodegradable waste and feed it to flies. The flies produce larvae that are used to make a type of animal feed that is more ecologically friendly and occurs naturally. Production of the feed will result in cheaper animal feeds for African farmers and processors.

Africa has experienced an average 6% economic growth due to innovative development around the continent. The application deadline for the 2014 Awards was November 30.

Daren Gottlieb

Sources: Innovation Prize for Africa, AgriProtein Technologies, Business Fights Poverty