Global health continues to evolve, with increasing investments, the diversification of stakeholders, and a staggering interest from young people seeking to exercise their privileges as global citizens. At our university campuses, global health speakers attract students from across the disciplines – economics, forestry, journalism, microbiology, and nutrition – there’s richness in this interdisciplinary approach. Yet the scientific enterprise is crucial to global health as its values of enquiry, peer-review, openness, and collaboration are universal. It may, however, be time to reconsider how we conduct research, what we research, and how research can benefit a global community.
Little over three months ago, I was on a frantic quest to complete a set of high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) experiments, as part of my graduate research at the University of British Columbia, before joining Grand Challenges Canada as a summer intern with the Stars in Global Health program. Working at Grand Challenges Canada is drastically different from the lab; however, the lessons learnt from those painstaking months spent optimizing a cell culture protocol, have come in use for developing a database for Stars in Global Health. Like lab work, the database presented a problem that needed to be solved and required an iterative process and experimentation with the functionality of Excel to finally generate the cornerstone of this analysis – pivot tables.
Where I, as a scientist, may fall short, is in occasionally forgetting the connection between my research and the potential impact on people seeking treatment for neglected tropical diseases. Research should not be conducted for the mere sake of conducting research. This is the beauty of the Stars in Global Health program – it is like no other Canadian global health initiative, in that it supports innovator-defined projects driven by entrepreneurs in Canada and low- and middle-income countries. This approach couples talent with opportunity and reflects what local scientists deem as critical health priorities of the communities they serve.
Affordability is always a concern in global health: What should determine what we invest in? What is an appropriate investment for a particular health priority or geographic region? At Grand Challenges Canada, the determining factors are innovativeness, potential to scale, and partnerships. With each funding round, social entrepreneurs are increasingly engaging with the Stars in Global Health program and so there is a greater chance that these investments will scale yielding a return – improved lives.
Innovation nested within global health wasn’t something I had given much thought to prior to joining Grand Challenges Canada. But in reviewing over 290 projects – 124 coordinated by Canadian institutions – it has been exciting to see the portfolio expand to include projects focused on non-communicable diseases, injuries, and nutrition. There are a number of projects I felt compelled to share with the other summer interns. It could be the use of a voice-based social media platform in rural India to facilitate the reporting of health care inconsistencies, or using a market-based approach to supply sanitation products in Cambodia, or the local manufacturing of menstrual pads in Rwanda. While these may sound similar to interventions supported by other global health organizations, they differ because Grand Challenges Canada places a particular emphasis on ‘scaling’ projects from communities to whole populations. Our Financial Innovations team is working to determine best practices for this.
Science and technology have no limits, as Louis Pasteur remarked, “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world”. At Grand Challenges Canada, we think of how science can serve as a means for diplomacy. The language of science transcends politics, religion, and ideology, presenting an opportunity for us to work towards resolving shared global challenges. There’s a new role for science and Canada in an ever increasingly interdependent world.
Jo-Ann Osei-Twum is pursuing her MSc at the University of British Columbia, with the Neglected Global Diseases Initiative. She’s passionate about basic sciences and addressing health inequities through community-based participatory research. Connect with her on LinkedIn.