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African science reaches for 21st century as Think Tank Lobbies for Synchrotron Light Source

The tragedy of African science lies in the insistence on double standards colored as “innovative” solutions for low and middle-income countries. This defeatist narrative has been propagated by the insistence that Africa is a dark continent fraught of requisite infrastructure and know-how to design, conduct, regulate and implement top-level scientific research.

African science would leap into the 21st century with a Synchroton light source project

Synchrotron light is used today to carry out fundamental research in areas as diverse as condensed matter physics, pharmaceutical research and cultural heritage (IOP.org). Image | Australian Synchrotron

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t would be foolhardy for us to  bury our heads to the truth in these claims. But we have to protest if this labeling, balkanization even, is employed to justify persistence of the status quo.  On the same scale, we must laud any attempts at a “Jump”. Here, the African Academy of Sciences, a pan African Nairobi headquartered science think tank and incubator takes the lead. ASS is urging African science to do just that — Jump — via an online petition: Call to support the creation of an Africa Synchrotron project .

To appreciate the gravity – of what is by many measures is just but a flicker in a dark tunnel of African Science – we seek lessons from the struggles of international health research ethics. Though not the perfect example, strides by African science in the conduct of collaborative health research, could inform the AAS lobby for a synchrotron light source,

Lessons for African science from stalled progress realized in collaborative health research ethics

Collaborative health research has made attempts at remedying this despicable state — where the highest level of science, technology and research is guaranteed for developed nations whilst lite, low- cost, often bad science is prescribed for ‘developing’ and ‘least developed’ regions of the world. This has been achieved by way of adopting the practice of responsible research and innovation. Two concepts: standard of care and fair benefits package; have been made important prerequisites for ethical conduct of collaborative health research in areas with less robust health systems.

However, despite the best intentions, the architecture of health services in Africa often makes these noble ethical constructs utopian. How for example could a research protocol on cancer achieve the highest standard of care? When East and Central Africa lacks a PET scan? Surely it’s defeatist to deny an otherwise scientifically robust, just and socially beneficial study ethical approval on some accounts. After all, on cost benefit analysis, denying society the benefits of high level health research is unethical.

Value of Synchroton Light Source to Science

While it holds that ethical decisions remain a conscious balance of benefits and risks even in the most ideal of situations; it shouldn’t be lost on us that it is unethical for Africa and Antarctica to be the only continents without a synchrotron light source. Lack of a synchroton light source, as we shall see later, is akin to Sunday league team competing in the Champions League.

Considered this way, on the scale of things – disease, poverty and hunger, a synchrotron light source is like any other high impact public intervention. Like Vitamin A supplementation or exclusive breastfeeding. Therefore, any fears of the financial implications should be stymied on this account. Moreover, all the talk of relegation of programmatic based aid support in healthcare for a health system based approach of delivering healthcare, a synchrotron light source will be a significant shot in the arm.

Biosafety Concerns

Any biosafety concerns can expeditiously be expended via bench marking. The old favorite – importation of expertise for skills transfer – could still do. I find it hypocritical that Africa readily welcomes foreign expertise in everything else. From infrastructure to electioneering, and yet can’t find an acceptable framework to tap into global scientific expertise.

The level of success of immigrant skilled labor  for American science should stir our imagination if we are to move African science into the 21st century. With one stroke, a synchrotron light source as a shared resource, should make things look up for African science. Particularly the health technologies pillar of WHO’s responsive health system construct. This is not even considering the usefulness of the light source across the whole spectrum of African science.

It is my opinion that a synchrotron light source fits the bill of the “jump” for Africa science. On this one, the usual piecemeal initiatives – capacity building , collaborative initiatives – wouldn’t suffice. As AAS is urging us , African science should learn to walk as we move. After all is said and done, a synchrotron light source is 1940’s technology!

Synchrotron Light Source 101 for Dummies

How we would put it : A special type of light, that is very bright. It enables scientists work at the nano level. Think of it as a very powerful light that enables scientists see the tiniest structures. Journey through the narrowest nooks and crannies. It is produced in short bursts, when sub-atomic particles are rotated under high speeds within a magnetic field.

Best online resource for non-technical people: The article: Synchrotron Light by the Institute of Physics. Simple, informative enjoyable, readable science.

Best take away resource on synchrotron light source: The Australian Synchrotron, a world-class national research facility that uses accelerator technology to produce a powerful source of light – x-rays and infrared radiation – a million times brighter than the sun, has a synchrotron light source fact file for download on their website.

 

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