Science in Africa with TReND, AuthorAID and a few connections

Just over a year and a few months ago I moved to a small town in the northern provinces of Mozambique to support my wife in her work in community development and water and sanitation. I went with a willingness to help out where I could, but with no real background in development, what was there to do for a research scientist in rural Africa?

African animals on a research paper (can you make out the title?)
African animals on a research paper (can you make out the title?)

Even though we don’t live anywhere near Mozambique’s biggest university, in the capital, Maputo, there’s actually quite a bit to do. Thanks to Joanne and her international development connections, before I left for Mozambique I got involved with the Planet Earth Institute, an organisation whose mission is to achieve ‘the scientific independence of Africa’ (see #scienceafrica on Twitter), the idea that true sustainable development can only come through investment in higher education and scientific innovation. I attended a meeting there that opened up a whole new area of possibilities for work, and this area, which could be called ‘scientific development’, looked like it could link my background as a scientist and my circumstances of living in Mozambique.

Since moving and finding that we have a surprisingly good internet connection, I have managed to find some things to do in this area of scientific development, especially through the work of two charities who support scientific research in African universities: AuthorAID and TReND in Africa.

AuthorAID supports researchers from developing countries around the world by providing training and support to help them publish and communicate their work. The AuthorAID mentor scheme, which I am involved with, provides one-to-one support to researchers who request it on anything from English for manuscripts to more substantial assistance for designing a research programme and securing funding. I’m mentor to two researchers in the AuthorAID mentor scheme, working with them on the language and organisation of their manuscripts. One is from Iran and works in a teaching hospital. His research interests are very different from my own, being very much more medical research and clinical trials, but still we’ve worked on six papers together. The other is from Ethiopia and investigates the medical potential of an indigenous plant species called Moringa, through the analysis of the effect of its active compounds on a number of human diseases, from diabetes to malaria. I’ve worked with him on three papers so far, two of which have subsequently been published in international journals, an extremely pleasing result.

TReND in Africa work to increase the research capacity of African scientists through direct training, university partnerships and the donation of equipment. TReND started out by encouraging African neuroscientists to use simpler model organisms such as Drosophila flies to reduce research costs without reducing research impact. This focus on cost effective research appropriate to context now includes open source software and equipment, an exciting new area for science in general. This area is even more exciting for African scientists as they can be freed from the cost of closed software and equipment and allowed to tailor their tools and equipment to their specific requirements. TReND’s main activity is a series of training workshops, the largest of which is the three week international summer school on neuroscience research which is in its 4th year. As TReND has grown, new workshops are being offered, such as in bioinformatics and molecular biology, but always focused on enabling the scientist to do more with less.

It was through my experience with AuthorAID that I recognised the enormous importance of scientific literacy and communication as fundamental skills in sharing research and conclusions with the international research community. Without those key communication skills, how do you convey the importance of your work, or contribute to scientific progress? The manuscripts I have worked with are fundamentally interesting – the research is unique and could be significant on the global scale, particularly in the fields of health and biodiversity. But it is not getting the global impact it should, and this is largely down to poor skills of scientific writing and lack of access to internationally recognised journals.

So, with this in mind I suggested to TReND to have a science writing and communication course to go alongside its range of academic training workshops. They agreed, and from the 7th to the 12th September this year I am organising a week-long workshop on Science Writing and Communication. I want the workshop to cover science communication at all levels, both on the written and spoken sides, from effectively searching the literature to review the field before writing, to planning and writing manuscripts and targeting them to appropriate journals, to responding to reviewers, to giving talks, not only to peers in an academic setting, but also in public with non-specialist audiences so that scientists share their work with the wider society. This draws not only on my experience in research and in science communication, but also on my enjoyment of writing (hence my blog) and presenting (hence the public talks I’ve given) and my experiences in Africa since I’ve lived here. The workshop will be taking place at Chancellor College, University of Malawi in nearby Zomba. I’m hoping that around 20 to 30 early career scientists from all over Africa will attend.

One of the major challenges for development and in arranging workshops like these is finance. Most scientific workshops and meetings rely on sponsorship and donations from large scientific companies, such as reagent manufacturers like Sigma or equipment companies like Eppendorf. Often, in exchange for sponsorship, these companies will be invited to demonstrate their products at the workshop, using them in the practical sessions to show off to the participating scientists. Professional bodies also offer grants often for meetings in the specific research areas related to them. Unfortunately, this workshop falls in a rather more ambiguous category of being related to science (but key to science!) but without having a laboratory science component, excluding us from many traditional sources of funding for meetings, and being cross-disciplinary, weakening our claim on any one particular grant. One avenue of funding I have explored is companies involved in science but not from the laboratory side, such as publishers and journals; charitable trusts offer another option. The workshop can offer opportunities for advertising and promotion of products to the workshop participants, but its generalist topic seems to not be of direct interest to many companies.

Another source is the general public of the world and with the rise of crowdfunding I thought I’d give that a go. So, in the spirit of start-ups and from outlook of the open source, open data and open science for the people, I’ve set up a crowd-funding scheme. There are a few crowd-funded workshops out there but I haven’t yet seen one related to scientific research and especially scientific development, so it could be the very first of its kind! I hope the unique ‘product’ gets us a few donations. If you are interested to donate or to see my attempt at crowdfunding, go to http://igg.me/at/trendscicomm. The goal is small – the workshop doesn’t need much to go ahead, but it does need some money!

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