With the end of a large research project there can be a certain sense of bathos. All that ambition at the beginning culminating in … what? Published papers in scientific journals, conference presentations on Slideshare, a website that you hope will continue to be updated and … well, the move on to the next project.
None of this is to put down traditional academic outputs. Only to acknowledge the desire of most scientists to see science really make its mark.
This can be especially so when it comes to research in developing countries where there is not just a real pressure from the funders, but also a strong desire from the researchers to contribute to real change in the world. Or impact, as we all now know it.
And so it is with real pleasure that at the end of the large research project that I’ve been working with that I can report that we seem to have avoided that plummeting feeling.
The project, Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, focused on diseases that pass from animals to people – those such as Ebola, Zika and avian flu that have led to so many headlines in recent years. It sought to explore the links between these diseases (known as zoonoses), ecosystems and poverty, and in particular how wider global patterns such as climate and land-use change affect how diseases emerge and spread.
A multidisciplinary undertaking, it included environmental, biological, mathematical, social, political, and animal and human health researchers from 21 partners across three continents and eight countries – working not just alongside each other but also integrating their findings in new and exciting ways.
As if this wasn’t enough of an endeavour in its own right, other challenges came up over the four years of the project – some welcome (our lead researcher became Director of the Institute of Development Studies, adding to her workload considerably); some expected – or at least expectant (our pivotal research manager went on maternity leave); and one truly unexpected and ghastly: our Sierra Leone team, researching Lassa fever, had to stop work when the Ebola epidemic of 2014/15 resulted in movement restrictions in that country, and laboratory and clinical facilities were turned over to crisis Ebola work.
Despite all this though, the project can claim to have contributed to real notches on the impact post.
Particularly notable is the creation of new, detailed risk maps for Rift Valley fever (RVF). These have already been put to use, forming an essential element of the Kenyan government disease monitoring and containment strategy when an epidemic threatened late last year. In the past RVF epidemics have led to the deaths of millions of animals and hundreds of people with huge poverty impacts for pastoralists.
Also of note has been the identification of the patches of land to which tsetse flies are increasingly being confined in the Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe. Tsetse are the insect vector of the trypanosomiasis parasite which causes disease in animals (affecting their productivity with, again, huge poverty affects for poor farmers), and sleeping sickness in people (fatal when not properly treated). This has big implications for Zimbabwe’s tsetse control measures which in the past have targeted huge swathes of landscape. The research shows more targeted efforts will not only be more effective but also cheaper – and these findings are now being fed into the policy process.
Even in Sierra Leone, where much of our work was necessarily curtailed, the anthropological research carried out pre-Ebola epidemic into the socio-cultural beliefs and practices surrounding infectious diseases found unexpected application during the epidemic. Much of it fed into an online platform delivering real-time evidence-based advice to organisations such as the World Health Organization, Department for International Development (DFID) and the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER).
To note all this is wonderful – and please do look at our other success stories – but some provisos are important. Impact is non-linear, takes time and can be hard to measure; some of our most compelling impacts (including those above) weren’t necessarily those we anticipated, while others – such as our original hope to facilitate more joined-up ‘One Health’ interventions, require ongoing stakeholder engagement that will inevitably take time to filter through.
Also – and importantly – impact doesn’t happen on its own. The Dynamic Drivers of Disease in Africa Consortium, which was supported by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation programme, had impact at its heart. It was stressed throughout the research process from conception workshop to final symposium.
So much science, both of the natural and social variety, is intrinsically fascinating. To make it worth celebrating too is a wonderful thing.
- This post was first published on the Soapbox Science blog from Nature Research, part of Springer Nature