AAAS Conference Coverage: Role of US Federal Agencies in Building Science Capacity

The goal of this presentation was to give an overview about how to balance a domestic and international agenda and the challenges and benefits of federal agencies.

Program Description

This is my attempt to turn my scrawled notes into something coherent and then my thoughts are in italics at the bottom. Please forgive any errors in the notes as poor transcription on my part.

Speaker:

Linda Kupfer from the Fogarty

The NIH in 04-05 (latest data available) spent about $600m of their extramural funds, approximate 3% of their budget, focuses on global health issues.  30% of that was in low to mid level income countries. About $20 million of that was via the Fogarty Institute for training. When we’re talking about that amount of money, the question is raised: what did we get for that?  There were over 4000 participants who, thru Fogarty, attended long term training (sessions longer than 3 months). Of those trainees, 90% returned to their country of origin, they saw a nearly equal number of men and women representing 108 different countries.  Of their participants: 30% were seeking masters, 12% doctorates, 8 % post docs and a percentage I didn’t catch going for non-degree certificate programs.

Fogarty is the smallest center of the NIH, but one with a large impact.  Francis Culler, the new NIH president said that one of his top five priorities was Global Health. His mission and direction has meant a log of other sections of NIH have been joining with Fogarty to promote this priority and make new efforts.

The research work that the Fogarty Institute is trying to promote is focused on being country specific, so that the researchers will be able to go home and be able to contribute to a problem that is part of their world. Once they do return home, it was recognized that it is hard for new researchers to get funding–there are two programs they sponsor GRIP: which provides funding for new foreign investigators.  Since 2002 they have given 77 grants in 22 countries and 11 other sections of the NIH participate.  20 grant recipients said that they used it to start new labs in their country, it has led to 145 new Medline publications and 72% said that they got follow up funding.

Fogarty also needs US partners for the second program, the Framework Program for Global Health which responds to the enthusiasm on university campuses for global focus particularly on health.  They have given 35 awards between 05-09 while working with 6 NIH Partners. These grants go across disciplines with a goal of interdisciplinary work.  The result has been at least 96 new courses in global health offered and 27 of those who received awards reported that it contributed to a new master or minor in Global health at their institution.

They also are a part of the Medical Education Partnership Initiative, funded at $130m per year with the goal of transforming MedEd in developing countries.  17 institutes at NIH and HRSA have signed on for this. Right now 11 awards have been made and all of those were in HIV/AIDS research and training.  They have also been able to make 8 small awards to focus on non-communicable diseases such as cancer, maternal health and cardiac health.

The future for this, she concluded, will be collaboration inside and outside of the National Institutes of Health.

Speaker:

Dr. Bruce Alberts, Editor in Chief, Science Magazine

Dr. Alberts spoke about the need for a new model of scientific engagement and coordination with people on the “other side of the table” to promote scientific collaboration. To that end, as a partial outcome of his speech in Cairo, President Obama appointed three new science envoys to the Muslim world. Only, this program isn’t actually funded so there are three people presently volunteering: Bruce Alberts in Indonesia and Pakistan; Ahmed Zewail in Egypt; and Elias Zerhouni, who is also running Sanofi at present, is shuttling about several Middle Eastern countries.

Alberts described signing on as a way to work to define the idea of scientific diplomacy for the future. He identified the goal of he and the other volunteers to be creating a toolkit and principles for the future, as well as structures, because this hadn’t been done before. They needed to convince skeptics that we need science envoys not just to Muslim majority nations, but to all nations. The advantages he identified of he and his cohorts are that they are very connected already within the scientific community, which allows them to leverage relationships and that they have no conflicting alliances with other agencies.

He then went on to describe what he had been doing in Indonesia. The focus that he went in with was capacity building and helping to establish what they wanted. His efforts there have been focused on how to create new leaders in the US and Indonesia so it was not just the old guard handing down pronouncements and they identified that there is a need for new programs to identify the best US partners with whom Indonesian scientists could collaborate. Alberts was an excellent pick for Indonesia as he’s written a biology textbook that is heavily used there. Of the scientists, especially the young ones that he met, he was pleased to see that at least half were women and found that many who had trained in the US at some point were our biggest allies.

They held a three day meeting with forty scientists under forty to talk about their wishes and goals for the future of science in Indonesia. One of the new pathways they discussed was moving towards inquiry based science education, which is something we already do to some degree in the US–letting kids do their own experiments.  There was also an emphasized need for increased investments in Science and Technology that would be distributed with an aim of developing a more merit based culture with competitive grants, rather than being based on political connections.

Among the accomplishments he mentioned was that those forty scientists were paired through the newly created Frontiers of Science to 40 US scientists also under 40. They also looked for new US funds to support university exchanges and are developing a government based researching funding agency like the National Science Foundation. Finally the National Sciences Resources Center brought educators and scientists to a workshop in DC in 2010 to start helping them develop inquiry based science training.

The major challenge with this is money. Dr. Alberts said President Obama stated that he wanted to double the science budget, but it was actually cut. (Can’t find a specific link for you on that one–just what’s in my notes).

The recommendations/thoughts that have come out of the science envoys include

  • Science and Technology is one of our most unique commodities.
  • We need to recruit the most talented from other countries to come here and be educated. Many will stay and become leaders here and those who return will stay friends of the US.
  • We need to build strong institutional and human capacities, allowing a relationship to build where we can share our values, freedom of expression and democratic goals rather than simply trying to “go and fix” their problems
  • The US government is not organized nor staffed to support this on a large scale at present.

Audience Question: How can we best help build more local merit based support?

Answer: Pointed towards the Interacademy Council and their How To Guide towards supporting the future.

Audience Question: How can we promote scientific knowledge as a public good?

Answer: Get the best education available on the web and create a portal so people can find it. He pointed to Science Magazine and their 24 monthly winners of best free science education websites.

Audience Question: How can we create more effective mechanisms within our governemnt, especially in the context of the many rules we’re already up against?

Answer: USAID has the authority, but it needs more strength behind it.

Audience Question: Why isn’t there an envoy to science rich countries like China, Brazil and India?

Answer: $$ is a big part of it.  Working towards a science attache in the embassies.

Speaker:

James M. Turner, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Turner started by reminding us that environment doesn’t respect borders. We must ally with partners on a regional and global level to better manage our resources.

The US Global Development Policy put forth by President Obama looks towards creating sustainable, country-owned, system building answers to address Global Climate Change, Food Security, and Global Health. Turner came at it from environmental stewardship: we must be stewards of resources under our control with rules that people follow and we need to protect those resources.

And we need to help others help themselves in order to help ourselves.

We’re in a Capacity Building Relay Race

  • We need to perform scientific research
  • We need to develop solutions to problems
  • We need the political will to provide resources
  • We need capacity building to implement solutions–this requires knowledge, training and resources.

This will come from a combination of  top down (government leadership) and bottom up (grass roots) efforts.  Presently, our efforts to work with other nations have been to try and help them build a framework and to prevent turf wars, while developing best practices and sharing failures. As other countries are capacity building, we must realize that the world will not change overnight and others must be supported to go out and make changes. There must be grass roots efforts: people must own and do the right thing.  We are up against challenges including tradition, culture, and history. We must show the benefits and give people a stake.

Government efforts can include technical support, core solutions and strategic thinking. Grass roots include work by a non-governmental organization on a village level, meeting people where they are, patience, and collecting, processing, and disseminating data.

Ultimately the goals in capacity building are

  • Self Reliance rather than Dependence
  • Developing Sustainable solutions
  • Providing assistance to partners
  • Learning from Partners

Group Questions:

How do we build capacity with low budget growth scenarios?

  • (Turner) Working internationally saves money. We need data that other countries can share and we can leverage the world’s brain power.
  • (Kupfer) Epidemic diseases and a younger generational global awareness has changed us. We have an internalized need for international partners.

How do we bring women into science and education?

  • (Alberts) Indonesia has some
  • (Turner) We must remind people that we need to promote women doing it and look for opportunities for female empowerment.
  • (Kupfer) We need to create mentorships–pointed towards the Global Health Initiative a need for women-centered health care.

There are bright minds globally that come and get fellowships who play a role in the development of science and technology in the US. Half might stay and half return to their own countries. For the most part this is a win-win situation, if we are able to leverage those US trained contacts abroad.  Though we are currently in the President’s “Race to the Top” and facing a goal “Winning the future” are partnerships will generally help us advance and should not be seen as a detraction or a one way street.

Abigail’s Thoughts:

I wish they would have taken the time to talk a little bit more about data management.  It’s a big problem and I’m not sure if it’s just something that is assumed to be working, if it is something no one is thinking about

From the Fogarty perspective: they are funding this research in developing countries but what happens when the research is done? There is information, is it being preserved, is it being shared, is it remotely accessible?  How much more could we learn if we could start to parse together studies that are being funded in these smaller countries along side trends and studies that are happening in first world countries.

I asked Dr. Alberts about it after the session –particularly relating to Indonesia.  Obviously he knows about the elephant in the room, Science just devoted an entire journal issue to data and how we need to plan with, for, around etc.  One of the things he sad that  struck me was how fearful of sharing they are at a government level and also, that there is fear that someone will monetize something out of data.  We see that right now–if we share our data overseas other countries are grabbing it, developing and monetizing.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but there is strong potential for ill will, particularly when there isn’t equal sharing by that other country.  Or perhaps we’re just not hacking and translating their research fast enough 🙂 Dr. Alberts said there was actually a law about not sharing their information in  Indonesia and that they hadn’t wanted to even give their bird flu stats to the WHO. He suggested that in time, with a great trust building relationship, we may be able to share data and collaborate.  There’s a lot of investment to be made .

But if we’re going to be providing these grants and if we’re asking them to generate this data and we’re using federal funds to do it, then doesn’t it automatically fall to some degree under the NIH and the NSF mandates towards data management? And if we’re helping these countries to truly emerge with their research, then shouldn’t that include a data manager of sorts (perhaps a librarian) who can help them figure out how to even preserve their information and make it available to their own country–even if the laws prohibit them from sharing it internationally?  Otherwise we run the risk of data silos not only at American institutions but across the globe with researchers unable to find out that someone else in their own country is working on a similar project. We perform not only duplicate but cross purpose research. We’re already doing that here, we need to figure out in our support of building science and technology, how to help them to do it better than we are right now–to give them a stronger structure and work together to make data as open as possible to improve outcomes globally.

Concern about funding was an issue—a point from the audience was “when people are worried about hunger and jobs here, there’s not money for research domestically, let alone internationally, even in countries where hunger and poverty are also a concern.” And I understand both sides of the argument. Yes, overall, we need to keep investing in research to make it go forward. But setting aside even just the jobs crisis in America, let’s talk about how many kids in inner city schools would benefit from more push for science experiments.  How many of our young researchers would benefit from these grants to set up new labs and try new things.  But it’s more expensive here and we already have a merit based system (theoretically) in place.  Raises some interesting questions and poses challenges.

And then, as I’m writing these notes up, a post from the White House popped up about “out-educating” our global competitors.

One Comment

  1. Comment by Wyman Stewart:

    Although I scanned through this post, focusing on your own thoughts, this was a most interesting post! I’ll return to read all these AAAS posts another day. Was not what I was expecting when I arrived here, based on past readings. Thanks again!