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Sent: 12 December 2002 09:48
Subject: 108: The status of biotech research in agriculture
This is from Dr. Ahmed L. Abdel-Mawgood, Associate Prof., Agronomy Dept., Minia Univ., Egypt. This is a summary of my views as a molecular biologist with a PhD from the USA and postdoctoral experiences both in industry and academia. After, I have returned to Egypt and as a visiting scientist to Saudi Arabia, I can summarize my views on biotechnology research in more than one developing country as following:
1. No national strategy, at least for Egypt, of the priority of the problems
that should be solved using molecular biology techniques.
2. Most of the molecular biology is a show rather than a real science aimed to solve a national problem.
3. Most of the work done in the developing world is incomplete. For example, I was working in a project of importance to the Egyptian agriculture, and once the funds from the USA stopped, the whole project could not be completed because I could not find the funds to finish the project.
4. In most of the molecular biology institutes in developing countries, qualified molecular biologists cannot find their way into them. Even worse, the directors of these institutes are selected based on their closeness to the government rather than their efficiency or vision in solving problems.
5. Dispersed efforts: One can find more than one lab in the same government sector, with the same facilities and maybe the same research agenda. As a result, most of the funds is going to establishing the lab and no, or very limited, funds for running costs. In addition, more than one lab is conducting the same research work.
Finally, from my own experience, the most successful work is that involving collaborative research projects with scientists from the developed world. So I am suggesting that developing countries set up agendas for their priorities and find an expertise from the developed world in that area of research to benefit from his/her experience, to speed up the research and hasten benefit from the technology.
Dr. Ahmed L. Abdel-Mawgood
Minia Univ., Minia Egypt
mawgood9 (at) yahoo.com
Visiting Associate Prof.
King Saud Univ.
Dept Of Plant Production
Faculty of Ag
Sent: 12 December 2002 12:15
Subject: 109: "Scientifically illiterate, politically clueless"
This is Dr. J.R. Murti, in continuation of my thoughts on the "scope & nature of biotech research agendas in developing economies...."
This is in response to a few e-queries I got directly as to my choice of the 3-pronged strategy (i.e. Governance & Education, Industry and Value Constellations) I advocated in message 97, December 10.
Professor Muir (message 104, December 11) is absolutely right "Being a biologist, it pains me to say that the near term solution is not in the biology (or biotechnology), but in the economics and politics of the region."
Here's how and why: Forget biotech or developing countries, for the moment. How do we sponsor meaningful research agendas of the politically clueless when the funding allocations are done by scientifically illiterate generalists? I've personally faced the wrath of full professors in science who refuse to accept that washing soap and visiting cards are also biotech products.
Mr. Gregory E. van der Vink wrote (ref. #1) one of the most insightful of science policy articles I've ever come across. I've taken the liberty to use the same headline for my 2nd contribution to this most interesting conference.
In another essay (ref. #2), Norman Augustine narrates this story: National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) administrator Dan Goldin cites a question he received while defending funding for the space agency: "Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?". Or take this one "They're trying to bring DNA into my neighborhood"!
And there's more: "As scientists and engineers, our achievements are increasingly taken for granted and our occasional failures subject to intense public criticism. A portion of the problem is due to the fact that there is still widespread scientific illiteracy even among those who hold high-level decision-making positions. For example, only 20 of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have a science or engineering background (which is, by the way, an increase from the recent past). There are only two in the Senate and none in the Cabinet. Of the 50 governors, 9 have a science or engineering degree. Keep in mind that these are the people who must make the decisions regarding automobile pollution standards, approval of a space program, funding of the superconducting supercollider, the human genome project, and developments in bioengineering such as the possibility of human cloning."
And these brutally frank confessions come from one of the most liberated of societies (after all, "science cannot lead in a society that fails". One final quote from Gregory's article: "Bright students do not see science as a way to reach positions of leadership, and science suffers because those in leadership positions have little experience in science. Our long-term future depends on citizens understanding and appreciating the role of science in our society. No panel report, no unambiguous example, and no well-connected lobbyist can make these arguments for us. In the next generation, we will not only need scientists who are experts in sub-specialties, but also those with a broad understanding of science and a basic literacy in economics, international affairs, and policy making. In the end, our greatest threat may not be the scientific illiteracy of the public, but the political illiteracy of scientists."
Which brings me to the theme of this conference and the strategies offered in my earlier message. Biotechnology is basically commercializing biological processes. If there's money to be made, then encourage/enact policies that help entrepreneurship. After all, intellectual property rights only ensure that demand always exceeds supply (a temporary economic rent or monopoly), even though it's for a defined period where more money than any risk-free returns can be made. Pure economics will ensure the selection of projects that will yield the same benefits with lesser resources, or yield more with the same resources. And market dynamics/intelligence will always sniff them out. This is where "value constellations" help in appropriating the best talent from rigid institutional boundaries (and jealousies) from fossilized government/universities (in developing countries) and business-driven research agendas of the industry. I'm personally involved in creating such hybrid/coalitional organizational forms or value constellations.
Finally, in case you wish to read the full text of the 2 essays, I'd be
happy to e-mail them.
1)SCIENTIFICALLY ILLITERATE vs. POLITICALLY CLUELESS. Gregory E. van der Vink. SCIENCE 276, 23 MAY 1997; p. 1175, Editorial
2) ESSAYS ON SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: What We Don't Know Does Hurt Us. How Scientific Illiteracy Hobbles Society. Norman Augustine; Volume 279, Number 5357 Issue of 13 Mar 1998, pp. 1640-1641
Dr. J. R. MURTI
Federation of Farmers Associations (A.P.)
#209, Vijaya Towers, Shantinagar
Hyderabad - 500028, INDIA
(O) +91-40-23319643 // +91-40-6665191
Email: jrmurti (at) hotpop.com
Sent: 12 December 2002 12:38
Subject: 110: Re: Fish farming and biotechnology in developing countries
This is from Paul Heisey, USDA Economic Research Service (formerly with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)):
I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Muir (message 104, December 11) that policy variables are extremely important, and infrastructure is necessary for the success of many technologies, even those most suitable to small farmers. But these policy questions are not simple, either. See the recent article by Amy Waldman in the New York Times (December 2, "India's poor starve as wheat rots") about India, which is a real Green Revolution success story.
Economic Research Service, USDA
USDA Economic Research Service, 1800 M St., NW
Washington D.C. 20036-5831
Tel. +1-202 694-5526
Fax: +1-202 694-5774
EMail: pheisey (at) ers.usda.gov
Sent: 12 December 2002 14:48
Subject: 111: Democratize biotechnology processes
My name is Aaron deGrassi. I am currently a graduate student at the Institute of Development Studies (UK).
I am writing because after reading the Moderator's comments, it seems that
the aim of this conference is rather
misguided. Choices about biotechnology should be decided in a democratic,
bottom-up manner--through organizations that are representative and
accountable to poor people--not through global email conferences. It is thus
preposterous to try to answer the sorts of initial questions this conference
has focused on:
1. what proportion of ag research resources should go to biotech?
2. what are priorities, levels, methods for research?
3. what should collaboration be with IARCs, universities, private sector?
These are not *our* questions to decide. As Miguel Altieri noted (message 42, November 25), poor farmers' voice is "again absent from this fora, as it is from most international meetings setting the agenda for the poor."
At the country level, it is not surprising that the African countries that are most advanced in biotech are some of the most corrupt and unequal societies in the world.
The regional African bodies that Marcel Nwalozie (Message 47, November 25) mentioned, while a step forward, are not representative of, nor accountable to, poor people--they are largely constituted by hand-picked delegates from undemocratic governments. In this light, the claim that biotechnology planning in these fora was a "long consensus-seeking exercise" is rather superficial.
We ought to be discussing how to build basic grass roots democracy and how to get rid of the well-intentioned but ultimately destructive trusteeship that plagues the development profession.
House 21, Brighthelm
University of Sussex
ald21 (at) sussex.ac.uk
[Note, the aim of this conference is not to provide answers to these difficult questions about the role and focus of biotechnology in the research agenda of developing countries. Instead, as specified in the Background Document, "By dedicating an entire conference to this theme we hope to encourage a useful and positive dialogue that will provide food for thought and be of assistance to policy makers in developing countries"...Moderator].