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Pygmy chimps: research priorities in the Congo


Can science work in Africa?
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I wrote an article as part of the Pugwash conference with which I was involved, in which I raised this catch-22 question: How can a third world country ever become a first world country in science when there is an enormous gulf and when, you know... they may develop but the developed country develops of course more rapidly so the gulf becomes wider and wider? And furthermore, the third world countries have priorities of simply literacy and first grade and high school education, whereas here we’re talking about centres of excellent research. How could you break this? And I wrote a model based on my experience in Brazil saying, one could perhaps do this by having visiting directors of research from highly developed countries, who would work in the developed country. They, of course, would not be willing to abandon their lab so they would only be there on a part-time basis but they’d have post docs over there, and train local people in situ rather than bringing them to the highly developed country and spoiling them by American or British or European standards. But I'd rather show what can be done in a third world country and at the same time, those visitors, part-time people, would really learn something about the problems that existed there. And do that model and then African... a very interesting African scientist Tom Odhiambo, a Kenyan insect physiologist, endocrinologist, read that and got in touch with me and said, 'How about trying it in Kenya?' And I gave some models. I said Nairobi, Caracas, I used a couple of examples... would be typical ones, because they had to be places that you could get easily to. Nairobi was always in the line of all the airlines that at that time all, of course, went down to South Africa but stopped there. And politically, Kenya at that time was perhaps a more stable country, that was still in the post Kenyatta days before all the problems arose there. And I said, 'Why not?' So we eventually came together and founded something called 'icipe', the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi.

Why insects? Because in a separate area, which I haven’t mentioned, one other involvement of mine has been insect physiology and ecology. And I founded a company called Zoecon, in 1968, the year when DDT was banned about developing new approaches for insect control, which do not involve pesticides but hormones, similar to the birth control pill on the Stanford Industrial Park. So I knew something about that particular field. And we said, here is a good example, and we would make... establish a centre of excellence in Kenya, in a really very interesting new area, endocrinology of insects, which was a new scientific area, but where the end point was a very serious one. And we’d study insect physiology of mosquitoes... of the main diseases. In other words, sleeping sickness, malaria and some other tropical diseases, which are spread... vectors are spread by particular insects. And yet you could do really fancy research that would be recognised everywhere and yet would have immediate application to that particular country. Furthermore, let's take the tsetse fly. You were not even permitted to do research on the tsetse fly in places like the United States because, of course, they don’t want to introduce the tsetse fly there so you’d want to do it in situ anyway. And so we founded icipe, which has become one of the major African research institutes, and was eventually taken over by the World Bank and so on, and funded and still is in existence. And eventually trained quite a lot of African scientists and became a really African institution.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, Nairobi, icipe, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Zoecon, Mosquito, Tsetse fly, Tom Odhiambo

Duration: 4 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008