Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scientific Research and Development

First published in Steven's Window, The National newspaper 11 December 2009.

It is always refreshing to see some of our best minds at work in finding solutions to our problems. I had the rare opportunity of participating in the UPNG 2009 Science conference at the Holiday Inn between the 12th and 13th of November 2009.

The conference began with a little story of how the PNG Medical Society began to the story of how the Sir Buri Kidu Heart Foundation began. Captivating and challenging, when told by one of PNG’s top heart surgeons, Professor Sir Isi Kevau on the first day. The stage was set as scientists and medical health specialists got down to addressing the national and global issues through scientific research and development. The conference is the second organized by UPNG’s School of Natural and Physical Sciences and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Throughout the two days scientists presented papers on their researches on natural product research and development, biodiversity conservation and climate change, alternative energy to science education.

Exciting discussions on scientific collaborations, specific research on medicinal and nutrition value of plants, climate change, antibacterial screening of medicinal plants, phytochemical diversity from the rich biological diversity of PNG, to isolation and characterization of chemical constituents in native beans were generated. The dynamism of the first day of presentation was maintained on the second day of the conference. This is the second year of the UPNG Science conference.

Some of our leading scientists like Professor Teatulohi Matainaho, Professor Topul Rali, Dr. Augustine Mungkaje, Professor Chalapan Kaluwin were leading research programs in the sciences, together with students and international colleagues such as Dr. Prem Rai, Professor Bret Neilan, Professor Louis Brown, Professor Hugh Davies, Dr. Basil Marasinghe and Dr. Philip Kigodi. The wonderful thing witnessed in this conference is the involvement of students in the scientific researches done in Papua New Guinea. Their contributions are some of the most rigorous and innovative in their research methodologies. Original researches from students are often invigorating and exciting.

As titillating as Professor Topul Rali’s discussion of downstream processing of plant derived compounds and market opportunities from PNG plants is the student researcher, Clan Alok’s discussion on the measurements of above and below ground bio-mass carbon of a forest reserve area in the Bogia District of the Madang Province. Mr. Asi Anas of the Department of Fisheries in the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment collaborating with Dr. Augustine Mungkaje of UPNG and others gave his findings on the biology of the fish species Hairback Herring (Nematalosa come) in the Bwemapou Lagoon in the Trobriand Islands. In a research carried out in the East New Britain Province, Peter Mwayawa reports on the pesticidal effect of six Tolai traditional medicinal plant herbs on Head Cabbage (Brassica oleraceae var. capitata) pests and diseases.

Discussions on the 1888 Ritter Island collapse Tsunami based on new data from sediment and oral histories, mapping mangrove cover change of the Bootless Bay in the Central Province between 1974 and 2000 using GIS and remote sensing techniques, and land use change and population growth in the National Capital District between 1990 and 2000 brought home the issue that important researches that can help national planners were possible because of sufficient funding. Without funding for such researches by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Higher Education, we would not have known the present sea level trends in the Manus area or the cause of infectious disease outbreaks in Papua New Guinea.

The issue that remains central to me when it comes to research at the university level is that collaborative work across various disciplines and schools of thought is the key to conclusive results. Most times we tend to narrow down our researches to the walls of our disciplines. In doing so, we exclude other elements important in our researches such as the cultural factors and the human societies with their forms of knowledge systems. Our scholarships and research works must find currency and relevance in our communities. We must ask: who are the benefactors of our researches and discoveries?

Listening to the research on fish species Hairback Herring in the Trobriand Islands I remembered listening to an ordinary villager profess his knowledge of fish and fish stock in the Waria River of Morobe province. The man knows more about fish than anyone I have known. We have not documented the knowledge of our indigenous fishermen and fisherwomen. There is more we need to do in the area of traditional knowledge systems.

More collaborative researches between scientists, social scientists and humanists are needed. In the session I was in, a young scientist, Gelenta Salopuka gave her paper on the pharmacognostic characteristics of Alstonia scholaris or the Milky Pine plant. Her scientific work on the plant interested me because of my own interest in the plant as an important medicinal plant in my own Nagum Boiken society in the East Sepik Province. I have documented the uses of the Milky Pine as an important medicinal plant used in traditional medicinal practices, but also considered a sacred plant in many societies. Medicinal plants classified as sacred plants have intellectual property rights attached to them. In my society this plant is linked to a mythical storyteller who recited stories about creation, about men and women, and about life and death the whole night until the sun rose. He walked up and down each branch as he recited the stories and genealogies of the tribe. His name is kept in secret by those who tell the story of this man.

As researchers we should be mindful of the possible cultural exploitations we open the gates to. Working together can protect the intellectual property rights of our people and country. The ethnobotanist, Mark J. Plotkin’s says in his book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice (1993) that the humble pink-flowered rosy periwinkle, native to southeastern Madagascar, fetches annual sales exceeding $100 million, yet not a penny goes back to Madagascar, the country of origin for the rosy periwinkle and one of the poorest country in the world.


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