Do field research projects do the world any good?

IMG_3931It’s a reasonable question to which no one really has an answer. I work in a field site located on Lake Victoria, the office of which is based out of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) station on Mbita Point.

We do malaria field surveys and have a large health and demographic surveillance system that has monitored births, deaths, migration and health events of nearly 50,000 people over the past six years.

The goals of the project are to monitor changes in demographics, outbreaks and changes in the dynamics of the transmission of infectious diseases and gauge the effectiveness of interventions.

While I view those as scientifically important, I don’t think that people on the ground experience any immediate benefit from scientific research activities. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, unless they’re getting a free bednet, it’s mostly an annoyance. Of course, we appreciate their cooperation and they are free to tell us to bugger off at anytime.

We are seeing rapid declines in malaria incidence, infant mortality and fertility in the communities we study. This is, of course, cause for celebration. Less kids are dying and people are having fewer of them.

In fact, the shift in the age distribution was so dramatic from 2011 to 2012, that we thought it an aberration of the data: the mean age of 12,000 people rose nearly two years from the beginning of 2011 to the latter part of 2012. Old people died off, and fewer babies were there to replace them, resulting in an upward shift in the age distribution. Cause for celebration in an area where women normally have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, who often end up malnourished, poorly housed and uneducated.

But we have to ask ourselves, how much of this is representative of trends in communities similar to the ones we study and how much is directly influenced by the presence of the research station itself?

A recent article in Malaria Journal documents the positive impacts that a research facility had on the local community:

To make the community a real partner in the centre’s activities, a tacit agreement was made that priority would be given to local people, in a competitive manner, for all non-professional jobs (construction workers, drivers, cleaners, field workers, data clerks, and others). Of the 254 people employed at the CRUN, about one-third come from Nanoro. This has strengthened the sense of ownership of the centre’s activities by the community. Through the modest creation of new jobs, CRUN makes a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the community. In addition, staff members residing in Nanoro contribute to the micro-economy there.

Another crucial benefit for Nanoro and CRUN stemming from their productive engagement was electrification for the area. This was made possible by the mayor of Nanoro leading the negotiations for extending the national electrical grid to the CRUN, and with it, to the village of Nanoro. Electrification spurred a lot of economic activity and social amenities that enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as: (1) improved water supply through use electricity instead of generator; (2) ability to use electrical devices, such as fans during the hot season (when temperatures can reach 45-47°C), lighting so students can study at night, the use of refrigeration to safely store food and the extension of business hours past sunset.

Health care services have been improved through CRUN’s new microbiology laboratory. Before this laboratory was established, local patients had to travel about 100 km to the capital city, Ouagadougou, for the service.

This agrees with my experience on Lake Victoria. The presence of the research facility (built originally in the 1960’s) and the subsequent scale up of research activities has been transformative for the area. As more and more people have moved to the area, a bridge to Rusinga Island has been built, two new ferry routes have been installed, the existing ferries have been upgraded, power has been extended to the area and finally, after years of waiting, a paved road has been built from Kisumu to Mbita Point.

..which brings back me to my initial question. It is clear that the building of research facilities can be a major spur for economic development and economic activity in a previously desolate and marginalized area. In case of Mbita Point, it is possible that these gains can be sustained even following an eventual cessation of research activities and strangled funding. In this sense, field research projects are doing at least some of the world good.

However, the gains which these communities are experience really have little to do with the research projects themselves and more to do with the influx of employment and infrastructure that come with research stations and research projects. This is non-controversial and I’m sure that the locals appreciate it.

But the quality and goals of research need to be assessed. Are the results we are seeing truly representative of communities which may be similar to the Mbita Point of the past? Are we unnecessarily influencing the outcomes of the research and then perhaps inappropriately generalizing them to contexts which little resemble our target communities? From a scientific perspective, this is troubling.

Of greater concern, however, are we claiming that gains against malaria are being made, when in fact, morbidity and mortality in communities we haven’t looked at is increasing? This could result in a dangerous shift away from scaled up ITN distributions or even a total reduction in international funding. If this happens, kids will die.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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