Tag Archives: Research

Genocide by Denial – An open access book from Uganda

I have posted a blog in the PALM Africa blog site on an open access book from Fountain Publishers in Uganda, created as part of the PALM project. The timing of this publishing initiative is telling for us in South Africa, as the book deals with an issue that is directly releant to the Department of Science and Technology’s legislation and proposed Regulations aimed at forcing the commericlialisation of research. The impact of profit-driven commercialisation of public health research is an issue that this book takes apart in a searing critique.

From the PALM blog:

Fountain Publishers in Uganda has launched as its first open access book a powerful and moving indictment of the price in human lives that the global innovation system has extracted in sub-saharan Africa, written by the internationally respected AIDS specialist, Peter Mugyenyi. The book is Genocide by Denial: How profiteering from HIV/AIDS killed millions. This is the first demonstration project in the PALM Africa initiative and the response to the open acess book as well as its impact will be tracked and researched by the PALM team…

The book is a powerful indictment of a failed system, written with passion and clarity. from the AIDS disaster should help the world find a way of incorporating justice and human rights in business. It is glaringly clear that the ills of the present system need to be fixed. He appears to be vindicated by the fact that the WHO is now aligning itself with this approach. of – developing global policy. Mugyenyi’s book needs to be read by the South African bureaucrats who are trying to enforce widespread and rigid commercialization of public research. Mugyeni’s conclusion to his book puts the issues succinctly: The timing is impeccable, as the release of the open access version of the book coincides exactly with a breakthrough at the World Health Organisation, which has finally reached agreement on a global strategy and plan of action on public health, innovation and intellectual property. The WHO initiative, after long negotiations driven by developing countries, aims to address exactly the problem that Mugyenyi addresses – the excessively and unaffordably high prices of the drugs needed to treat neglected diseases in developing countries, driven by the global patenting system. In addition, it addresses the lack of adequate research on neglected diseases, also spawned by the profit-driven Intellectual propoerty regime supported by the developed world. Among the recommendations in the WHO  plan of action is government intervention to ensure voluntary sharing or research, open access publication repositories and open databases and compound libraries of medical research results. Thus Fountain’s engagement with open access publishing on a public health topic is right in line with – and ahead Laws that deny or delay access to life-saving and emergency drugs should be urgently addressed on the humanitarian principle of lives above profits, but without hurting the businesses. Innovation in the crucial area of human survival should not be entirely dependent on money-making and big business, but should primarily aim at the alleviation of all human suffering and saving lives as a basic minimum. This does not contradict fair trade. Business success and humanism are not incompatible It is just a big lie to suggest that humanity is too dim to find ways of rewarding innovation and discovery other than by holding the very weakest of our society at ransom. It is also untrue that the only way businesses can thrive is by cutthroat pursuit of profits under powerful and insensitive protective laws, irrespective of the misery caused and the trail of blood in their wake. Lessons learns more from thePALM blog, with further details of the book and its contents…

Innovation policy

The Australian federal government has just completed a review of its National Innovation system. Australian research and innovation policy-making tends to be broadly consultative, wide-ranging  and forward-looking, so I was interested to compare this with what the South African government is doing. Our IPR Act of 2008 is Bayh-Dole on steroids, insisting on commercialisation and patenting wherever possible, and apparently treating open innovation as the exception, not the rule. And speaking of rules, the Regulations impose layers of bureaucratic filters between the researcher and the innovation outcome.

I am still working through the Australian document to absorb its detail but it has some valuable insights and the overall thrust is clear: there needs to be a balanced system, in which commercialisation is but one strand of the innovation role that universities can play. Far from taking Bayh-Dole as gospel, there is a critical evaluation of such strategies and a re-evaluation of  what innovation policy should look like in the 21st century.

Moreover, the Australian government and the participants in the policy process are aware of the pitfalls in excessive patenting. They review the past record, warn against the damage that can be done by patent law that is not rigourous enough and advise against policies that could create patent thickets. Most interesting, there is a strong argument for this arena to be opened up, so that the participants in the innovation system have a strong say, rather than this being the exclusive domain of lawyers. This is a lesson that I think South African universities might need to learn – it appears that our academics are not engaging with the South African legislation, thinking that this is the domain of professionals.

This Australian policy document reminds me of a recommendation from Arie Rip at an  early stage of the South African higher education policy process (2000):

The common mimetic route is to define the nature of capacity-building in terms of what is now seen as important. This may well be a recipe to become obsolete before one’s time … [T]he world (of science and more generally) may well evolve in such a way that present-day exemplars will be left behind. So developing countries should set their sights on what is important in 2010, rather than what appears to be important now – however difficult this will be politically. 1

The IPR Act of 2008 is unfortunately trapped in the ‘mimetic route’ that Rip warns about here. But what about Australian thinking in 2009? Here are some extracts that give some insight into the thinking that will inform policy review down south:

On the commercialisation of research:

Research commercialisation is not a core role for universities. Nevertheless, universities can play a vital role in the commercial process. In cases where the benefits of research are best achieved through commercial engagement, universities should, where possible, attempt to partner with appropriate stakeholders to achieve these goals. Such instances are in the minority and universities more commonly play a role of commercial significance through provision of vital research advancement, workforce training and substantial international links.

On the protection of intellectual property rights:

[T]here is a caveat which is increasingly important: The development of intellectual property is cumulative. In the words of Sir Isaac Newton, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Because new knowledge always builds on old knowledge, the property rights we have erected to encourage innovation can actually obstruct it.

On the need to open up the question of patenting and IP beyond the legal profession and the IP industries:

Nevertheless the consideration of policy … is dominated by IP practitioners and by the beneficiaries of the IP system. We need the expertise of lawyers in this as in many other areas of policy but it is imperative that IP policy make the transition that competition policy made over a decade ago now, from a specialist policy area dominated by lawyers, to an important front of micro-economic reform.

On access and dissemination for social and economic benefit

Along with the rise in support for access to information has come a growing recognition of the need for users to be able to search and interact with data and content. Legal frameworks must also be developed to facilitate access and reuse. This points to the need for an Australian National Information Policy (or Strategy) that optimizes the generation and flow of ideas and information in the Australian economy. As the National Competition Policy (NCP) involved systematically scanning Australian institutions to optimize the operation of competition to enhance outcomes so National Information Policy would scan Australian institutions to optimize the generation and dissemination of information for social and economic benefit.

Thus for instance, unless it seriously undermines its commercial objectives of sale of product, the ABC should err on the side of making its content available over theinternet unless this has large opportunity costs. The presumption against free availability might be overcome where it would involve the foregoing of substantial commercial revenue from the sale of the content or there are large costs of hosting the necessary internet bandwidth (although in this latter case, peer to peer means of distribution should also be explored as should the diversion of funding from other activities and/or additional funding).

The advantages of  open science

To drive cumulative knowledge creation researchers and others must have access to high quality data and information on developments not just in their field but beyond. For instance, Jeff Furman and Scott Stern have calculated that Biological Resource Centres that are repositories of biological materials (including cell lines, microorganisms and DNA material) have boosted cumulative scientific knowledge by three times more than alternative institutional structures 2.Australian physicist Michael Nielsen has stressed the importance of unlocking scientific information in scientific journals to make it more easily discoverable, searchable and useable to enable the cross-disciplinary search for knowledge:

We should aim to create an open scientific culture where as much information as possible is moved out of people’s heads and labs, onto the network, and into tools which can help us structure and filter the information. This means everything – data, scientific opinions, questions, ideas, folk knowledge, workflows, and everything else – the works. Information not on the network can’t do any good.3

There is a lot more in this report – I recommend that South African researchers read it as they engage with our legislative process with an eye to preserving their expertise and independence in the process of ensuring that their research has maximum national impact.

1. Rip, A. (2000) Fashions, Lock-ins and the Heterogeneity of Knowledge Production. In Kraak, A. (ed.) Changing Modes: New knowledge production and its implications for Higher Education in South Africa. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

2. Furman, J. and Stern, S., Standing Atop the Shoulders of Giants: The Impact of Institutions on Cumulative Research, National Bureau Economic Research Working Paper. 2004.

3. http://michaelnielsen.org/blog/?p=448

Obama promises to restore science to its rightful place

President Obama has made the headlines with his speech to the National Academy of Sciences. First of all, he is apparently unusual among Presidents for attending the NAS annual meeting, but he also made a powerful speech promising to put science and research at the heart of the recovery of the US, with substantial increases in investment.The full text of his speech can be found on the New York Times Dot Earth blog which will be running a commentary space on the speech.

It is instructive to compare Obama’s proposals with the policy developments we are facing in South Africa. The IPR Act of 2008 is based in the USA Bayh-Dole Act  of 1980. Not to labour the point too crudely, that is 29 years ago. We are forgetting the fundamental injunction that policy formulation needs to look forward, not backwards if it really to advance the country. The philosophy behind Bayh-Dole was informed by a Reagon-style economic vision that imploded in 2008 and one that the Obama adminstration is aiming at undoing. That outdated view says that the economy is all and that if universities act like businesses and commercialise their research, using patenting and revenue-seeking, then this will bring benefit to the country through economic growth and trickle-down. In my next few blogs I will be exploring the debate on how this has really worked (or rather, not worked) and what alternatives are now being proposed in other countries for effective innovation.

But for now, let us celebrate Obama’s speech and see what vision it embodies, rather than the dysfunctional ‘managemented’ view we currently live with. He talks of the crisis: ‘a medical system that holds the promise of unlocking new cures and

treatments — attached to a health care system that holds the potential for bankruptcy to families and businesses; a system of energy that powers our economy, but simultaneously endangers our planet; threats to our security that seek to exploit the very interconnectedness and openness so essential to our prosperity; and challenges in a global marketplace which links the derivative trader on Wall Street. The main focus is on medicine and energy for a sustainable environment, both with a strong human perspective.

Obama’s vision is of an interdisciplinary, international, collaborative and open scientific system. For a start, the policy system is being opened up:

As part of this effort, we’ve already launched a web site that allows individuals to not only make recommendations to achieve this goal, but to collaborate on those recommendations. It’s a small step, but one that’s creating a more transparent, participatory and democratic government. Then science itself is perceived as a collaborative open system: In biomedicine… we can harness the historic convergence between life sciences and physical sciences that’s underway today; undertaking public projects — in the spirit of the Human Genome Project — to create data and capabilities that fuel discoveries in tens of thousands of laboratories; and identifying and overcoming scientific and bureaucratic barriers to rapidly translating scientific breakthroughs into diagnostics and
therapeutics that serve patients.

And of course, with someone like Harold Varmus leading his scientific team, one hopes that open access will be on the agenda of a new scientific system.

Science is seen as not only the ivory tower (although basic science is given a strong emphasis) but scientists are preceived as potential activists. Applied research is valued and Obama places a strong emphasis on the potential role of the young and of the role that scientists can play in taking their knowledge into the schools and the community to help enthuse and inspire a new generation.

Ultimately, in typical Obama vein, it is a moral vision that drives this iniitiave, although substantial funding is going to drive it:

Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values — these moral sentiments, that faith — can put those things to work — to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth.

We need to ask whether our policies are in line with this renewed vision from the country that drives sceintific research in the world and if we are ready to collaborate with Obama’s USA.

Inaguration day

On Obama’s inauguration day, I thought I was going to be in the wrong place.

I was banking on seeing the speech live. But instead I was at a celebration for  a very good policy research organisation – one of the many in South Africa that take it for granted that what research is about is making a difference and that their research publications should be made available free online for everybody. It is one of those very South African research organisations that have became a source of high quality research interventions to inform development in a democratic South Africa.

The occasion was the launch as  an Institute  of  PLAAS – the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape.  The acronym is wonderful – for non-South Africans, you need to know that ‘plaas’ is ‘farm’ in Afrikaans and that is the language of the rural workers in the Western Cape who are a primary focus of  PLAAS’s research. The venue was the pool terrace of a hotel near the sea, at a spot where Robben Island is just a short way across the bay, a reminder perhaps of the Mandela inheritance that Obama might draw on.

I arrived at the venue with the Inauguration very much in mind, thinking through how things might change for us with a new US President. Obama’s is a very different face in the now gloriously inappositely-named White House, with special meaning for Africa. In the background, the sound effect is the thundering crunch of falling masonry as the mad world of global business falls apart. From the southern tip of Africa, the question is not only how Obama will do as President, particularly in relation to Africa, but also whether the economic crash is going to be hard enough to give him space to help usher in a different and less exploitative world order.

In his interview at Google, while still a candidate, Obama had given us a glimpse of  his vision for a more open way of government, a world in which access to knowledge and information is a guarantee of democratic participation and good governance. ‘If you give people good information,’ he said, ‘they will make good decisions’. Giving good information and making it accessible to the people who need it is what  PLAAS and other research groupings like it do pretty well.

In my naïve way, I believe that this kind of research is in truth the globally competitive cutting edge strength of the South African research endeavour, rather than the journal indexes, journal article counts and the tallying up of citation counts that is used as the metric for valuing South African research. The engaged research carried out by organisations like PLAAS features the combination of high quality and cutting edge basic research with real engagement with the community. As Subbiah Arunachalam would say, scholarly communications need to flow from scholar to scholar, from scholar to farmer, from farmer to farmer and from farmer to scholar. That is one of the things that makes for really good research.

But organisations like PLAAS do face problems in our current research policy environment. This   emerged in the speech of Ben Cousins, the Director of PLAAS He said two things that struck me particularly on US inauguration night. One was that, although the Institute publishes a high volume of quality research in print and on its website and makes sure that this reaches government policy-makers and other stakeholders, PLAAS’s researchers are under relentless pressure from the university to publish more and more journal articles in ‘accredited’ (i.e. indexed) journals in order to attract government publication subsidies. Policy research papers and research reports on development-focused research don’t count.

The other piece of information Ben gave us was that the government appears to have taken a strangely wrong-headed direction – as he sees it – in its land rights reform policy and is planning  an empowerment programme that aims to create black empowerment through the sponsoring of large-scale corporate farmers who could operate in a globally competitive market.

In both of these cases, the values at play are those of  the world that seems to be failing, of the large corporations, with profits and competitiveness as the driving forces. That is all too clear in the land rights reform proposals. However, not all academics recognise that it is this very same global business world that owns and directs the hallowed traditions of journal publication and citation counts that dominate how scholarship is disseminated and how it is valued in South Africa.  After all,  the journals that are most highly rated tend to be those in the hands of large commercial publishers. And the way these are indexed – and hence valued – is in the hands of a single US conglomerate. Thomson Reuters owns the ISI journal indexing system that is treated with such reverence in South African academe and it is Thomson Reuters and no-one else that decides who wins and who loses in this particular game, which journals make the cut and which don’t.

What is happening in South African research therefore is that the commercially-driven values of global competitivenesss in exactly the world order that Obama is challenging dominate the academic reward system, marginalising the value-driven research that aims to make a difference, contributing to  national development in precisely the way government says it wants its research investment to deliver.

It turned out that there was a television screen in the venue, so it was with the supporters of PLAAS that I listened to the inauguration speech. There was less of relevance than in his interview at Google, where he talked of the need to provide open access to all aspects of policy making, making medical policy through a consultative process, but ‘not letting the pharmaceutical companies buy the table’ and expressing the perspective he has as the grandson of a woman living without running water or electricity in rural Kenya. But in the inaugural speech, he did talk of the restoration of ‘those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.’ These things are also the values of research centres like PLAAS and not of the global journal publishing system that has grown up in the last 60 years, giving us s remarkably inequitable knowledge regime, where far too much of the really important research that we do is consigned to the margins.

World university rankings – UCT web presence

UCT, as a good research university, likes to compete in world rankings, endorsing its  high international profile. Well, we have creamed another competition, in relative terms, but In ever the less have some unsolicited advice on how we can improve our ranking even further to power our way into the ‘PremierLeague‘ top 200 of this particular competition.

We are talking about the Webometrics world ranking of university websites, which has just released its2008 rankings (thanks to PeterSuber’s Open Access News for bringing this to my attention). UCT comes in at number 385 out of over 14,000 universities. Not bad at all – it puts us at the topof Africa and gets us in ahead of all but two Latin American universities and all Indian universities (where Bangalore comes in at 605). Not unexpectedly, the top 8 African universities are from South Africa, with Stellenbosch second at 654 and Rhodes third at 722. UNISA, surprisingly comes in quite low – 8th, at 1,499. DUT is the lowest rated South African university at 8,735.

So, congratulations to UCT and its web developers. But can I begrudging and suggest that we should do better? We need to get into the world top 200 – the Premier League, among the big Asian, US and European players (and yes, that is the order). After all, UCT prides itself on its far-sightedness in ICT development and has created the Centre for Educational Technology for the development of ICT use for teaching and learning – something that turned out in a recent online discussion forum in the eMerge2008 online conference to be the envy of many of our colleagues in other universities.

To get a hint on how to do better, one needs to look at the criteria for evaluation. This is what the Webometrics site says about its criteria:

The original aim of the Ranking was to promote Web publication, not to rank institutions. Supporting Open Access initiatives, electronic access to scientific publications and to other academic material are our primary targets. However web indicators are very useful for ranking purposes too as they are not based on number of visits or page design but global performance and visibility of the universities.

As other rankings focused only on a few relevant aspects, specially research results, web indicators based ranking reflects better the whole picture, as many other activities of professors and researchers are showed by their web presence.

The Web covers not only  formal (e-journals, repositories) but also informal scholarly communication. Web publication is cheaper, maintaining the high standards of quality of peer review processes. It could also reach much larger potential audiences, offering access to scientific knowledge to researchers and institutions located in developing countries and also to third parties (economic, industrial, politicalor cultural stakeholders) in their own community.

The Webometrics ranking has a larger coverage than other similar rankings. The ranking is notonly focused on research results but also in other indicators which may reflect better the global quality of the scholar and research institutions worldwide.

The site includes a very useful ten-pointlist of good web practice for university sites. But it is clear what UCT needs to do to improve its rankings, and that is to put its scholars’ research output online, to make it accessible and searchable and increase the ‘global performance and visibility of its research’. Note that the ranking includes not only formal journals and repositories, but also ‘informal scholarly communication’. The Social Responsiveness programme in the UCT Planning Office is demonstrating that we produce a lot of that, too, although we do notr ecord it properly. Putting the not inconsiderable output of UCT’s student and staff community programmes would serve a dual purpose of increasing the reach and impact of these vital resource sand increasing the university’s research profile.

So how about a drive to put UCT’s considerable research output online(including its very substantial contribution to community development) and see if we can shine even better in another international ranking? And yes, this does apply also to all those S&T departments North of Jammie steps.