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24 October 2011

North-South collaboation can strengthen health research

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release

Africa’s investment in research infrastructure is inadequate, especially since the continent is going through an epidemiological transition where both communicable and non-communicable diseases co-exist. Collaboration between Northern and Southern countries is important to build Africa’s capacity in generating knowledge and innovation for use in combating its high disease burden, said Dr Olive Shisana in a keynote address delivered in Berlin at the World Health Summit today.

Shisana, CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council and president of the World Social Science Forum, said technology based on scientific evidence drives innovation, which is vital in reducing the high disease burden in Africa and elsewhere.

She pointed to the four major non-communicable diseases that contribute to 60% of all deaths globally, namely cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases, many of which are preventable through available technology. Surprisingly, 80% of these deaths due to non-communicable diseases are in developing countries, having a major socio-economic impact.

Communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other tropical diseases are also widespread in Africa. For example, 67% of people living with HIV/AIDS reside in sub-Saharan Africa. A case in point is that new infections and AIDS-related deaths are declining in this region due to the availability of antiretroviral therapy (ART), a direct result of knowledge applications generated by scientists.

Of concern is that both communicable and non-communicable diseases occur in the same population and often in the same person. Non-communicable diseases in Africa have grown unchecked over the years because more resources were dedicated to the prevention and treatment of HIV and less to non-communicable diseases.

As more people with HIV/AIDS live longer due to use of ARVs they are likely to develop non-communicable diseases, posing huge challenges to health service provision in sub-Saharan Africa – a region with inadequate numbers of skilled scientists to conduct research and help translate it into prevention and treatment programmes.

If North-South collaboration is to occur, research capacity will have to be boosted on both sides of the divide. She said Africa has lost some of its intellectual capital to developed countries due to lack of research infrastructure, career growth, and poor salaries.

Investment in research and development (R&D) is crucial for production of a critical mass of scientists. R&D expenditure in countries like South Africa and Argentina, for example, is a fraction of that spent in Sweden and Japan. **

“It is therefore no surprise that the number of full-time equivalents of researcher per 1 000 people in employment is lowest in countries of the South; for example, South Africa (1.4), China (1.5) and Argentina (2.9) have low FTE rates compared to industrialised countries, such as Sweden (10.5), Japan (10.4), Australia (8.4) and Spain (7.0),” she said.

A major factor in making collaboration possible is funding. Major funders often call for joint applications across the oceans, but the issue of equal partnerships between the North and South has not been solved. “Southern researchers are sometimes treated as data collectors, rather than scientists who can engage fully and competently with the subject matter. Collaboration is not only a technical matter, but willingness to change the way we relate to others as we produce new knowledge,” she said.

The matter of good infrastructure in Africa is also a barrier for collaboration. This includes poor access to infrastructure for the dissemination of scientific papers; attitudes or practices of editors and scientists in the North (real or perceived) not to publish papers from the South; and English as the language of scientific communication which results in higher rejection rates in North-based journals for research papers submitted by non-English speaking authors; publishers charging exorbitant fees, for example one online publisher charges US$ 3 000 for papers posted free online with unrestricted open access.

“For someone living in resource constrained settings working in universities or research institutions in a country where the majority of the population lives on two dollars per day, this simply means that the article is unlikely to be published”, Shisana pointed out.

She proposed that Northern publishers adopt an open-access policy to allow those living in resource constrained settings to participate in global information exchange. To bridge the divide, Shisana suggested that the following measures:

    •    Set the research agenda together
    •    Share research resources
    •    Grant funds for research unconditionally
    •    Make research infrastructure available to scientists no matter where they are
    •    Offer incentives to conduct research
    •    Collaborate on research –South to South, North to South, North-South-South
    •    Be open to publishing articles from the South

“The epidemiological transition happening all over the world is an opportunity for us to build capacity and collaborate to tackle non-communicable diseases that are common in our countries as well as address communicable diseases.” Shisana concluded.

Download the full presentation:

* Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) indicator of Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD)

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