Realizing ICT's promise for global research, training

March / April 2013 | Volume 12, Issue 2

Opinion by Dr. Roger I. Glass
Director, Fogarty International Center

Information is the most prized currency of our fast-paced, wired world. We all struggle to stay up-to-date on scientific developments by consuming the constant waves of articles, reports and datasets that wash up in our email boxes every day. We routinely hold videoconferences with colleagues across the ocean, to share findings and plan collaborations. Here in Bethesda, we can instantly review surveillance data from remote villages, beamed up from hand-held devices by scientists studying disease outbreaks on the other side of the world.

But how do we make the most of this flood of information? How do we leverage the glut of big data to speed discoveries that can save lives? How do we ensure the latest findings are broadly shared, especially with developing country students and scientists who lack expensive subscriptions to online journals? What training tools can be implemented in low-resource settings to foster the next generation of tech-savvy, multidisciplinary scientists that we so desperately need?

Here at Fogarty, we have been grappling with these thorny questions for some time. While we're encouraged by the results of our previous efforts to stimulate activity in information communications technology (ICT), we feel we must do more.

Through our new eCapacity program, we intend to provide a catalyst for our current and former grantees to explore how ICT can be employed to drive innovation and incorporated into novel research education tools. It's critical that institutions gain ICT expertise so they can review the vast resources available, assess what works best for their particular needs and keep up-to-date with technologies as they evolve. We intend to leverage the program's accomplishments by encouraging the broad sharing of outcomes - in terms of best practices, sample curricula, scientific presentations and online lectures.

As bandwidth is expanding across Africa and other developing countries, it's vital we take advantage of the myriad opportunities for online research collaborations, distance learning, mobile apps for data collection and analysis, telemedicine and other approaches that have the potential to revolutionize how we conduct research and training in low-resource settings. This dovetails nicely with ongoing NIH efforts in the region.

Through the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI) , we are transforming medical education in sub-Saharan Africa, in part by supporting efforts to integrate ICT into all activities, including development of medical curricula, shared teaching tools and approaches to increase networking among institutions.

In addition, through the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa), NIH is bringing genomics to the continent where human life began and where research holds much promise. With its goal of building genomics-related research expertise and infrastructure across Africa, the program includes provision for ICT training, vital for the design of research studies involving the collection and analysis of large datasets. The initiative will also develop skills needed to build and use a bioinformatics network to share the enormous collection of samples and findings the project will produce.

Cellphones and other hand-held devices also remain a topic of interest for us. We've been astounded by our grantees' early studies that demonstrated cellphones' essential role in low-resource settings, in ensuring treatment adherence among HIV-positive people.

A trans-NIH interest group is following mHealth developments in these and other aspects of research and care. We are proceeding somewhat cautiously, as much more rigorous study is required. As NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins put it recently, "The plural of anecdotes is not data."

I look forward with excitement to the proposals our eCapacity program will generate and am glad to live in the information age, where ICT has the power to transform the way we work, and improve the health of all people, especially those living in the most remote outposts.

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