Lincoln P. Edwards | Gov’t must assemble key research institutions
I am pleased that The Gleaner’s editorial of Monday, March 30, 2020, titled ‘Where’s the region’s COVID-19 research?’ has shed light once again on the importance of research to the development of any country. The editorial rightly pointed out that much more could be achieved by Jamaica and the region, if research becomes a way of life. In this regard, Jamaica could benefit from a study of successful research models in the United States (US) or elsewhere.
In research-intensive universities in the US, a faculty member is hired, given significant resources to equip a laboratory, and guaranteed a salary for three or four years. Their time is protected to be dedicated mainly to research by minimising their teaching or other involvement in non-research activities.
This level of focus has produced much research success, which is usually assessed by the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications and the acquisition of external funding. This model has resulted in millions of dollars from both public and private sources entering the universities. The salary savings plus the overhead payments are welcomed by universities.
One shortcoming of this model is that institutions without a robust research infrastructure (many historically black colleges) find it difficult to compete in an open process against those who do. This is because an important criterion in the selection process is the research environment.
Large institutions, with well-equipped infrastructure, always have the advantage and gets the bulk of the funding. Similar problems have been encountered by small countries such as Jamaica, in the area of commerce. Hence, the need for special trading arrangements, or initiatives, to protect smaller economies while they develop and prepare for globalised competition.
FUNDING REQUEST REJECTED
When worthwhile research ideas are submitted for funding and they are rejected (maybe due to underdeveloped research infrastructure), there is always the risk that unethical persons can steal these ideas and submit them as their own (it has happened!).
The National Institute of Health in the US, the largest funding agency for biomedical research, has given recognition to these challenges by creating the Office of Minority Health, to handle health disparities, recognising the importance of research on minority populations and by minority scientists.
Countless numbers of research careers have been facilitated and advanced by this approach. Grants are created with access only by minorities, to allow careers the initial support, and to create the infrastructure in smaller institutions that over time will allow them to compete on a larger scale.
The Network of Minority Health Research Investigators serves as an advisory body to the National Institutes of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), and as a former Planning Committee Chair who deputised for the NIDDK director in his absence, I know at first hand the importance of this approach to nurturing the careers of junior scientist.
I am, therefore, proposing that the Jamaican Government assembles the key research institutions in this country, with the aim of strengthening their research capabilities.
The Gleaner editorial referenced the University of the West Indies, University of Technology and Northern Caribbean University (NCU), and I would include two additional institutions engaged in agricultural research. I would also encourage the Government and private sector to invest in the research infrastructure (buildings, equipment, personnel) of these five institutions, and empower them to carry out research in line with the strategic objectives of the Government, and the needs of the private sector.
For example, NCU has done groundbreaking research in the area of nutraceuticals, with focus on sorrel, and in collaboration with ZON International using the McGhie Cinnamon Ginger (MCG). The anticancer properties of the MCG, shown in vitro by NCU researchers, have tremendous potential for Jamaica, both in the field of health and in agriculture.
Once exciting research is taking place at an institution, it acts as a magnet to attract scholars, students and patients (if a treatment is involved). This opens up the immense untapped potential for edutourism and health tourism.
Consider further that nurses and other health professionals trained in this area would now enter the public health system. Since these professionals would have been trained at a private institution, they become available for service to the Government at little or no training cost, because education at private institutions are not generally subsidised by the Government.
This diverse approach will allow each institution to draw on its established or evolving networks to bring technology and expertise to Jamaica to benefit our businesses and our people.
There are some things that only a university can do, and a diverse approach will yield the best results. In the matter of research funding, there should be no distinction between public and private institutions.
NCU’s sister institution, Loma Linda University (LLU), in California, has had a successful collaboration for years with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), conducting joint research on the campus of LLU. The US Federal Government has also partnered with LLU to run the Veterans Affairs hospital in the City of Loma Linda quite successfully.
Northern Caribbean University stands ready to partner with the Government and the private sector in carrying out greater research activities. A fully equipped research facility on our campus would certainly enhance this goal.