Who should research benefit?

I’m reflecting on an interesting discussion that some of my colleagues and I had over dinner last night. We were discussing the Demographic Surveillance Program (DSS) that I am currently managing.

For those not familiar, DSS programs, generally speaking, do what you local city hall and health department do. They track births, deaths and migration and keep track of specific health outcomes such as cause of death and incidence of particular diseases. It’s pretty basic stuff, but outside the capacity of many developing countries, and the focus on health issues allows for deeper investigation of public health outcomes.

One of us, who is Kenyan, remarked that the DSS program needs to coordinate with the Kenyan government to satisfy specific data needs. I took issue with this idea.

First, as a program sponsored by a research institution, our number one priority should be the accommodation of research projects. A university receives public money to perform research projects which benefit and are directed by the scientists who run them.

Second, a research institution is not a development NGO that seeks to provide public services that countries are unwilling or unable to provide themselves. It is a fact that the Kenyan Government, like many African governments, has a poor record of providing public services. I would argue that while we should certainly offer results of our activities to the government and local stakeholders, that a university sponsored DSS should not be considered a substitute for that which governments should be doing themselves. The assumption is often that African government are incapable of doing things like tracking births and deaths, but the reality is that they are simply unwilling and the activities of NGOs often exacerbate this problem.

Third, government involvement in foreign sponsored research is a slippery slope. Many African governments are wholly or partially autocratic. They do not exist or function to benefit their people, but rather exist only to enrich themselves and maintain power. Academic research should, in no way, contribute to keeping autocrats in power and should operate independently from any political body. In fact, academia has a duty to question power both domestically and internationally. Unnecessarily submitting to government demands opens up a number of potentially problematic issues, including the suppression of results which are inconvenient to government bodies.

While research projects require government approval to function, the power of government to influence the course and outcomes of research should be limited. While many bureaucrats would take issue with this, the reality is we can always just go somewhere else.

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About Pete Larson

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

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