Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Interdisciplinary Doctorates for International Development

By Professor James Smith

Engaging with African Neglected Zoonotic Diseases

We are pleased to welcome a cohort of four new PhD students whose doctoral research will focus on how we stop the ‘neglect’ of African Neglected Zoonotic Diseases (NZDs). These ESRC and University of Edinburgh-funded students will contribute to the INZI project.

The group of a dozen or so so-called ‘neglected tropical diseases’ (NTDs) infect one billion people at any one time and more than one third of the world’s population – almost all in the poorest parts of the world - is exposed to these diseases. Infected individuals often suffer from multiple debilitating infections, limiting life and livelihoods, requiring expensive treatment and consequently driving cycles of poverty.

An especially problematic sub-set of NTDs are also zoonotic, and are the focus of this research. These endemic or (re)emerging diseases infect humans and animals, and often transfer by vectors, which presents greater challenges for control and treatment. They are also contingent on changing environmental contexts, and generate new risks in terms of food insecurity and emergent disease.

Grappling with complexity

We need to couple a greater multidisciplinary bio-physical understanding of the context, drivers and implications of these diseases with a much more nuanced sense of the socio-economic and institutional contexts – at multiple levels – that shape, for example, exposure to risk or the ways in which disease may be detected, prevented or treated.

Multidisciplinary social science, drawing on both quantitative and qualitative approaches and equipped to engage with cognate medical and natural sciences, can make an enormous contribution to our understanding and ultimately management of neglected diseases. This contribution can extend from explaining why these diseases are neglected in the first place, through understanding the policies and power that shape the relationships between actors who engage with research, outbreaks and impacts, how people evaluate risk and take decisions under conditions of uncertainty and what are the sources of information and knowledge people draw on in doing so, and finally, ultimately, to ensuring that these diseases do not remain ‘neglected’ in perpetuity.

A key challenge is training people able to comfortably work across disciplines, analyse these interconnections, place them in context and generate policy and practice that can control the risk of neglected zoonotic infections. The ESRC have funded this doctoral cohort to ensure the development of multidisciplinary social scientists equipped to deal with complex emerging health issues in developing country contexts, at different scales.

To achieve this, the students will be able to draw on training and research opportunities from the ESRC Scottish Graduate School for Social Sciences (Link) and the BBSRC East of Scotland Bioscience Doctoral Training Partnership.

Welcome to the students… 

Nadia Bemgten
, who has completed an MSc in Medical Anthropology. She will work on a project entitled Tracing international policy networks, which will look at the new forms of networks, alliances and partnerships that shape global health policy and contribute to product development around NZDs.

Shona Lee, who has completed degrees in Social Sciences and Health and Evolutionary Medicine at Durham. Shona will be analysing Big Data and global health: what it means; how it is shaping policy and practice; what knowledge is being built up.

Rebekah Thompson, who holds an MA (Hons) in Social Anthropology and Development form Edinburgh. She will be undertaking an ethnography of research practice, and its implications, in the International Livestock Research Institute, in a project entitled Mapping international livestock research. Rebekah will complete an MSc in Medical Anthropology as a component of her training.

Simon Zappia, who holds a BSc and MSc in biological sciences and has been working on insect vector control in East Africa. His project, ‘Below the radar’ innovation, will focus on why innovations around vector control rarely scale up in East Africa.

So, welcome to Nadia, Shona, Rebekah and Simon, who have chosen to undertake extremely ambitious projects that will extend them intellectually, challenge them to work in new environments and countries, and develop their ability to analyse and articulate their findings. In return we are sure they will challenge the contexts, drivers and dynamics that have perpetuated NZDs in Africa.

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