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E-interview with Dr. Gunilla Priebe: Should more malaria research be based in Africa?

March 1, 2010 - 08:25 -- Bart G.J. Knols

Dr. Gunilla Priebe recently graduated from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) on a most interesting topic. She advocates further Africanisation of malaria research based on her study of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria. Some questions for Gunilla... 


 Question/Bart: If you argue for more research in the South, then what should the role of scientists in the North be(come)?...

Gunilla: The call for Africa-based malaria research means primarily that research questions should emanate from the major problems people living in malaria endemic areas are experiencing. It further means that research programs are planned and carried out in close cooperation with local expertise and authorities, and that solutions (e.g. treatment) are formulated with the living conditions in malaria-endemic areas in mind. International research should therefore acknowledge the value of experienced-based understanding of malaria as well as of the societies where the disease exists and is going to be fought. There will therefore still be a role for scientists in the North, but the role of scientists in the South must be better recognized and appreciated. The call for Africa-based malaria research is therefore hardly a dismissal of international cooperation, rather it is a call for more cooperation, of a strategically different kind: between different researchers, between researchers and decision- and policy-makers, and these together with health care personnel and people experiencing malaria. It is a call for a true globalization of research, characterized by equality and mutuality.



Question/Bart: Some of the really high-tech stuff is outsourced by research groups to companies (based in the North), or is hugely expensive and can only be carried out in settings where equipment is shared. How would you deal with this in relative small settings in Africa?


Gunilla: As was pointed out above, Africa-based research does not mean less, but more cooperation. This means that the more important question may not be whether a high-tech machine is located in a Northern or a Southern country, but what matters is who decided the technology in question was necessary, and on what grounds. This statement has two sides to it: Firstly, if basic malaria research is Africa-based, then high-tech too can be developed with malaria problems as its prime focus (contemporary high-tech that was developed for solving other problems may not nail the essential characteristics of malaria). Secondly, the fact that high-tech exists and is highly valued by academia, does not necessarily mean it is what is most needed for solving the more significant questions for malaria control or eradication. And here I would like to quote one of my informants, who is a Professor in Biochemistry: “The international doctrine is that science is technology driven, but we’re saying: good science can be done with simple and not necessarily the most complicated technology. The scientific thought process is more important than the equipment that realizes it, and if an idea is really genuinely new there will be no equipment to measure it! /…/ I do think that the way science is done in the main stream or majority today, that there is too much emphasis on /…/ technology driven and too little emphasis on actually thinking things out clearly and asking the right questions and looking for the simplest, easiest or most effective way of answering [the questions].” 



Question/Bart: Has MIM delivered what it promised? What was good and what was not so good?


Gunilla: The focus of MIM has shifted over the years, but there have been some very concrete accomplishments where research programs have been financed, Internet-access secured and Pan-African conferences arranged. However the objectives are also of a kind difficult to measure, e.g. no doubt the alliance has advocated for more resources to malaria research but the increase seen cannot be explained by the work of MIM alone. Apart from the material accomplishments MIM has also contributed to raising very important questions regarding priorities governing malaria research. This, however, is (as I argue in my thesis) not a problem isolated to academia, rather it is bound up with historical processes guiding the unequal world order we still live in. As the work of MIM challenges colonially inspired ideas about the Western expert as well as totalizing views on the universality of scientific facts, one contribution is also that the alliance draws attention to the possibility and necessity of new structures of authority within global science. 



Question/Bart: Considering that the flow of donor money is North-South, what should donors do? Give money unrestricted? What about Dambisa Moyo's arguments (in Dead Aid)?


Gunilla: There is not a universal or an either/or-answer to the question of unrestricted/controlled donations, but each setting has to be looked at individually. And that is the point really: locally based work can acknowledge the specificity of that locality. In my thesis I am trying to show how research funding agencies (including private philanthropic foundations) often behave as if the “development impasse discussion” (that has been going on for decades) did not apply to them, or as if the Paris declaration did not concern their activities. Science (including its expression in research priorities, programs and support) is many times planned and carried out as if independent of time and space, and my conclusion is that this is connected to outdated ideals of universalism and scientific autonomy. Concretely: research agencies are often acting as if linkages to the problem in focus and the product implementation site are subordinate to linkages to academic criteria for excellence, to high-tech and prominent research environments. My advice is that research funding agencies (“donors”) realize that they are part of the problem that the Paris declaration is trying to come to terms with. I further advise that they recognize that as scientific work is taking place in a society it becomes integrated with other goals of that society. Once it is recognized that science does not stand alone, then we can plan ahead and make sure it is coordinated in relation to other spheres of activity, the need for a sustainable educational and health system, the need for the people’s empowerment, and the ability to plan for and believe in future and so on. 



Question/Bart: What do you think of the current approach to capacity strengthening in relation to the ambitious goal of malaria eradication? What is, in your opinion, needed to reach that goal?


Gunilla: If you refer to MIM’s approach to capacity strengthening, I think it is a necessary condition for reaching that goal. And by MIM’s approach I mean the high emphasis on locally-initiated problem formulations and solutions, as well as the emphasis on cooperation between all societal actors involved. 


Many thanks, Gunilla, for your answers and good luck with your research. 

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