One night in June I became quite happy upon seeing an email on my Blackberry (yes, I still use one). It was an invitation to speak about getting research published at a conference for scientists from developing countries.
I have just come back from this conference with fond memories and a much better understanding of what it takes to do good, collaborative scientific research in developing countries.
The conference was called the PEER Science Participants’ Conference and it was held in Bangkok. PEER stands for Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research. It is run jointly by three American organizations: USAID, NSF (National Science Foundation), and NAS (National Academy of Sciences). PEER sets up collaborations between researchers in developing countries and American researchers, and funding is given to the former through USAID.
PEER has two categories: PEER Science and PEER Health. Through a competitive application process, developing country researchers are selected and funded.
The conference last week in Bangkok was the first conference of its kind for PEER Science participants. It was essentially a networking event for them to get to know one another, possibly discover links between research projects and establish new collaborations, showcase their research through flash talks and poster sessions, and attend talks given by USAID representatives and invited speakers. The talks were on topics such as communicating science to the public and policymakers, getting published, major funding opportunities, and proposal writing.
I reached Bangkok last Monday and attended the welcome reception, where I sat at a table with scientists from Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and the US. I happened to meet a fellow panelist, Richard Primack, who was also there to speak at the “Getting your research published” session. Dr. Primack, a professor at Boston University and the editor-in-chief of the journal Biological Conservation, said something that was echoed many times during the conference: one of the best ways to strengthen the careers of researchers in developing countries is to establish formal collaborations between them and researchers in developed countries.
The next morning, in one of the opening talks, a USAID representative mentioned that the motivation for PEER stems from the belief that science and technology can lead to national development and economic growth. Some goals of PEER include funding research towards scientific innovation, developing science diplomacy, realizing tangible development objectives, and providing data for evidence-based programs.
About 140 PEER awards have so far been given to scientists in 36 developing countries. Biodiversity, water, environment, and climate are hot topics of research in PEER-supported projects. PEER Science is now accepting proposals for their third cycle of funding (the deadline is December 16, 2013).
“Flash talks” were a prominent feature of the conference. Ali Douraghy from USAID in Indonesia spoke about how researchers need to learn how to communicate their work quickly and make an impression. He then moderated the flash talk sessions, where the researchers in attendance had to speak for not more than 3 minutes about their research. This was challenging for some, but many managed to deliver effective and even memorable presentations. It will be a long time before I forget the talk given by Vijay Chariar of the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi: he first read out a philosophical poem and then spoke about his work in ecological sanitation with what can be called appropriate toilet humour.
During another session, some of the scientists spoke about the collaborative aspects of their research projects. I was impressed to learn about the outcomes of one of those projects, an air pollution study in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Dr. Christa Hasenkopf from the University of Colorado and Dr. Sereeter Lodoysamba from the National University of Mongolia are studying air pollution in Ulaanbataar, which has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world. To raise awareness of this problem in a scholarly way, they have built a Wiki site – UB Air Pollution Wiki – which has been accessed 85,000 times, and they also maintain active Facebook and Twitter accounts. Their work has been featured on Huffington Post and has apparently led to offers of funding from local organizations!
Some of the talks at the conference might be especially interesting to the AuthorAID community, and I plan to highlight them on the AuthorAID blog.
The conference had much to offer, including a spectacular dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River, and I commend the organizers for their brilliant work.