Implementing technology to advance science

May / June 2014 | Volume 13, Issue 3

Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass

Information is the most valued currency in our increasingly wired world. That's why it's critical we invest to expand the use of information and communications technology (ICT), especially in low-resource settings. With the growing availability of broadband - even in Africa - and the ubiquity of smartphones, we must take advantage of the tremendous opportunities these technologies present for facilitating online research collaborations, developing novel distance learning curricula, and analyzing huge and complex data sets, among others. All of these avenues hold great potential but require funding and study to determine which are the most effective.

As we met recently at Fogarty to consider the changing landscape of global health research and our role in it, we identified ICT as one of the areas that holds the most promise. Indeed, it is a key priority in our new strategic plan. I'm delighted that we have already begun to find ways to catalyze progress in this area - first, with our new eCapacity program and soon with a mobile health initiative that we hope will encourage research in that burgeoning field.

ICT tools are transforming biomedical research and it's essential we ensure they are extended to our developing country partners. To speed the discovery process, we must enhance capabilities for projects involving the use of surveillance, epidemiology, geospatial technology tools and more.

Through our new Global Health Research and Research Training eCapacity Initiative, we aim to develop innovative educational approaches that enhance the biomedical research enterprise at low- and middle-income country (LMIC) institutions by expanding the use of ICT. With our first round of five grants, we are encouraging the development of adaptable ICT users whose research activities continue to evolve as technological changes take place. This $1.6 million investment will support researcher training in seven countries and target a wide range of public health issues, including trauma, infectious diseases, mentoring and research skills, biostatistics, data sharing and management, software programming and research ethics.

Global health research projects are increasingly distributed across multiple countries, resulting in collaborations and networks that require ICT, data sharing and new forms of research training. While a growing number of Western e-learning materials are being made available globally, it is vital that LMIC institutions develop the capacity to create their own electronic learning tools and collaboration resources that are tailored for the local needs and context.

We continue to build on the framework established through our informatics training program, begun in 1998. A number of the projects have since expanded to form regional networks, leveraging the teaching tools and lessons learned to benefit researchers elsewhere. For instance, Brazilian scientists are sharing materials with counterparts in Mozambique, where Portuguese is also the national language. Meanwhile, researchers in Peru are building a Latin American training network, and a university in South Africa is working to strengthen biomedical informatics throughout the region.

Eventually we hope to stimulate "learning laboratories" in LMICs that are empowered to develop and evaluate different models of distance learning and other ICT strategies, as well as adapt open access platforms for the needs of research and research education. Studies will be needed to identify new models for training in the use of ICT tools and strategies that can be implemented in low-resource settings, to foster the next generation of tech-savvy, multidisciplinary scientists.

These Fogarty investments help ensure that scientific advances are accessible to students and scientists in LMICs. This capacity will allow professionals in LMIC institutions to assess the vast resources available and stimulate technological innovation and locally relevant solutions to address global health problems.

In our vision for the future, students, faculty and researchers will access, teach and share information in creative and transformative ways, enabling new approaches to collaborative learning and problem-solving, in partnership with colleagues in the next room and across continents.

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