Science - December 2, 2010

A bit more compassion in higher education please

Text:
Marion de Boo

Western science is too obsessed with national economics and with publishing, and therefore neglects good opportunities for food production and preventive health measures in developing countries, says Wageningen philosopher Cor van der Weele.

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For example: between 1975 and 1999, 1,393 new medicines were launched on the market, of which 13 targeted diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and dengue fever, known as the neglected diseases, which kill millions of people in the tropics every year. These figures point to an imbalance which was dubbed the '10-90 gap' in the late nineteen nineties: less than 10 percent of global health research targetted the diseases that formed 90 percent of the health problems.
Philosopher Cor van der Weele, who works at the Applied Philosophy chair group at Wageningen University as well as the economics institute LEI in The Hague, is doing research on this gap and kept a weblog about her findings for a year and a half (www.tenninetygap.wordpress.com ). She focussed on genomics research which relates both to the development of new drugs and to the improvement of agricultural crops.
According to Van der Weele, the 10-90 gap still exists. Some things have changed for the better, but that is mainly thanks to private initiatives. 'Bill Gates, for instance, puts billions into tropical diseases research. But the research agenda is still skewed. I have pondered the question of which mechanisms maintain this gap and which ones could help to bridge it.'
Van der Weele has not focussed on Wageningen specifically. 'Wageningen has perhaps always been the most globally oriented university in the Netherlands, so the situation is undoubtedly different here. But the obstacles thrown up by the culture around science and innovation affect Wageningen too.'
Knowledge economy
It is really quite surprising that western research has such a limited focus. By its very nature, science has a universal and cosmopolitan ethos, which fits well with globalization. And yet Van der Weele demonstrates how scientific policy seems to be largely oriented to national interests. 'The 2008 to 2012 business plan of the Netherlands Genomic Initiative (NGI), which directs most of the research on genomics, concentrates mainly on strengthening the Dutch knowledge economy and our competitiveness compared to other countries.' Valorization is a core theme in this policy plan. And central to this is scientific excellence, as revealed by large numbers of publications and citations in high-impact journals.
Practical use
One obstacle to globalization is the gap between the subjects of research and global problems. It is not easy to design research projects so that they are of practical use to poor countries and also provide a scientific challenge on which researchers will be able to publish their findings. The Ghanaian-Dutch Program of Health Research was a unique health project because it was entirely demand-driven, and based on real issues in Ghana, but Dutch researchers dropped out because it provided too few opportunities to publish.
Van der Weele: 'The former Wageningen malaria researcher Bart Knols estimates that no more than five percent of the research on malaria is of any real practical use. The rest of the articles aim at filling gaps in our theoretical knowledge, and like that publication has become an end in itself.'
Cor van der Weele does not blame the researchers themselves. 'If you are in a situation in which you will be judged by your publications list, it is logical for you to concentrate on that. But policymakers should ask themselves some ethical questions and reflect on their aims. Science is increasingly being seen as a production process, part of our national economy. And there is great dissatisfaction about that, especially in the humanities. Someone who writes a book these days can only count it as two publications, whereas it represents a lot more work than that of course.  The pressure to publish also leads people to cut up their research into more and more little pieces, so they can produce articles on each of them, together with as many colleagues as possible. And then they all cite each other as often as they can.'
More ecology
Another mechanism that maintains this inequality is the focus on technology. New techniques attract a lot of research funding, on the assumption that this is where innovation comes from. But many important innovations actually come about through an interdisciplinary process of using existing knowledge and combining it with low-tech improvements. An example is the remarkably successful System of Rice Intensification developed by a Jesuit father on Madagascar. In this system, rice plants are transplanted much earlier in wide rows, using drip irrigation instead of flooding. Not only does this create big savings on labour and seed, but it is also good for the soil, and therefore for the crop. The idea was only gradually taken seriously in the scientific world, but is now a global success.
But for research on food and poverty, recognition for interdisciplinarity and low-tech innovation would mean less emphasis on genomics and more appreciation of the contribution made by agro-ecology.
Enlightened self-interest
There are some signs of a change of thinking. Van der Weele points enthusiastically to the report Knowledge without boundaries, recently published by the Advisory Council for Science and Technology. This report pleads for a shift towards a globally oriented science and innovation policy, in which major global challenges inform the Dutch research agenda. 'It is certainly important not to make hard ethical distinctions here', says Van der Weele. 'A purely altruistic policy would be totally unrealistic; human motivation just doesn't work that way. But by the same token, it is not clear exactly what our own interests would be. The task is not to renounce national interests, but to think about them in a new way: not in terms of who is the best, but in terms of interdependencies, so that you can get a combination of enlighted self interest and compassion.' 

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