We have institutions to undertake high-level biological research, but lack the funding
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For all the talk about biotechnology, democratic South Africa has not
invested in high-level biological sciences nor joined the global genome
projects in the way that Cuba, India, Brazil, Nigeria and China in the
developing world have, writes Wilmot James, October 2005 by Wilmot James.
Puzzling, for this is the best of times for biology, a knowledge
revolution of sorts. With the genome we finally understand how life works
and in its finest molecular detail, the equivalent in biology of discovering
the high-level master plan for the weather or the universe.
What we find in insight takes our breath away, for new discoveries about
viral, plant, animal, human and other lif We can modify plants in ways that
the older generation of plant breeders could only dream of. Our repertoire
of edible plants - from wheat to barley to rice to maize - is a result of
genetic manipulation by crossbreeding experiments under-taken by human
beings about 10 000 years ago.
e, all built around different configurations of deoxyribonucleic acid or
DNA, accumulate day after day.
With this knowledge we can do a range of innovative things, some good, some
bad, some where we do not know in advance whether it is good or bad, for
this is frontier science.
Today we can experiment on the level of the gene and drive agricultural
production to new levels. Though we must scrutinise genetically modified
crops for ill effects, we should do it on a case-by-case factual basis and
not succumb to some generalised hysteria.
We understand much better how animals get sick from viruses, bacteria and
parasites and therefore can develop molecular veterinary medicine to deal
with these more effectively. In a continent where we lose up to a quarter of
our cattle annually to disease, the difference new medical interventions
make to our food supplies, gross national product and exports is promising.
We used to lead in this area at Onderstepoort, the veterinary school linked
to the University of Pretoria, and some original and pathbreaking work is
still done there, but we are losing ground rapidly to the rising
international institutes of Kenya.
The more the merrier, you might say. But Onderstepoort is badly
under-funded, which is why the recent discovery there of what causes
heartwater disease among animals did not get to the next step of innovation
We also understand much better how human disease works, including the
killers of Africa - malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, though there are many
others. A molecular understanding of disease leads to the era of molecular
medicine, genetic screening and early diagnosis of diseases like cancer, as
well as more advanced forms of gene therapy.
The science of finding proper interventions has not been figured out,
particularly for HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. We need more money, brains
and laboratory time for that enterprise.
The commercial pharmaceutical industry has the resources to invest in
high-level research but shies away because there is no market for the
products once they appear. Basically, the people of the south do not have
the money to pay.
Universities have difficulty in undertaking goal-oriented research - such as
finding vaccines for HIV. South African universities have also been
under-investing in basic science research by having to - sensibly - balance
their books, but with no special mega-science grants to draw on, to the
detriment of the broader intellectual enterprise.
The Medical Research Council has not benefited from fresh inflows of
significant monies for gene research, to build on the enterprising first
steps of its former president Malegapuru Makgoba when he established
genomics institutes with some universities.
As a result, we have been unable to join the global haplotype mapping
project - the so-called HapMap Project that Nigeria and China have, for
example, joined - which seeks to establish a more comprehensive database of
human variation in genetically inherited diseases and disease
susceptibilities and which, on the basis of the results could lead to the
development of a much more effective, comprehensive and modern health-care
We have the institutions to undertake high-level biological research (think
of UCT's Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine or IIDMM,
for example, and there are others) but lack the proper investments that
must, under the circumstances, come directly from government.
In a recent draft document written by President Thabo Mbeki, Science and
Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena and Public Enterprises Minister Alec
Erwin (The Challenges Facing Higher Education in South Africa, June 1, 2005)
they ask appropriately whether there "are areas of science that we should be
focusing on", whether "we are inspiring our faculties and providing them
with the opportunity to combine research with excellence in teaching" and
how to "organise the national research effort" to do the things we need to
Though the paper underestimates our universities' ability to undertake
foundation science research, it is refreshing to see how engaged our senior
politicians are with the issues. They promise emergency funding immediately
and long-term funding for foundational research in the sciences and
humanities that would take us into the modern world of the discovery science
l James is Chief Executive of the Africa Genome Education Institute and
Honorary Professor in UCT's Division of Human Genetics.
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