Scientific lives in the post-austerity global South: scientists’ biographies in collaborative global health research in Africa

Ferdinand Okwaro is a Kenyan born Medical Anthropologist who is currently working on an NRC funded research project titled "The Practice and ethics of collaboration in transnational medical research in East Africa: an ethnographic approach"

Before joining the SAI, Ferdinand was a postdoctoral research fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where he conducted the formative research for this current project. He previously wrote his PhD from the University of Heidelberg in Germany and his Master and Bachelor degrees from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He has also conducted extensive research in the field of global health and policy, ritual healing and alternative medical practices, reproductive health and social marketing.                   

This presentation derives from preliminary findings of an on-going NRC funded project that examines the ethics and practice of collaborations in transnational medical research in East Africa. Apart from fostering relations amongst scientists globally, collaborations result from the fact that scientific institutions in the ‘Global South’ often lack the resources and technology to conduct research for the health requirements of their populations that meets global scientific standards. Capacity building is consequently an integral part of most collaborations.  This essay uses a biographical approach that pays close attention to the trajectories of African scientists in order to understand the processes, personal investments and sacrifices involved and the particular kinds of scientific results and capacities produced through collaborations in the era of global health research (by contrast to scientific trajectories and biographies elsewhere in the world, or during different times, before austerity and the reformulation of African science under the signet of global health).

This account of scientist’s careers shifts our knowledge from the popular modernist narratives of scientist as independent  individuals fashioning careers based on their passion for truth, to a much less straightforward itinerary – never simple or tidy – but  uncertain and often influenced by the dictates of leading global health institutions and funders. African scientists must,  just like their institutions (explored elsewhere) diversify their funding sources , and diversify their expertise across very diverse fields to enable them remain relevant in an environment where scientific ideals of creativity, freedom and integrity coexist with realities of science as a source of livelihood and income. Scientists create their careers through aligning their scientific interest and expertise to pressing global health interest such as malaria, HIV/AIDs and tuberculosis, and through social networks that reinvent and recast the roles of the impersonal, the familiar and the charismatic that were for a long time considered irrelevant to the scientific enterprise.

This paper asks, what does this very different version of “scientific life” mean for science and knowledge production in contemporary Africa?  And what effect does it have on the identity, status and self-perception of African scientists in global health?  And ultimately: what effect does it have on the much evoked ‘capacity building’, that one would hope collaborative scientific endeavours ultimately lead to?

Published Jan. 26, 2018 2:03 PM - Last modified July 13, 2018 12:48 PM