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UK universities to be scrutinised on global health research
  • UK universities to be scrutinised on global health research

Copyright: William Daniels/Panos

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  • A new index will assess research’s impact and accessibility

  • It could lead to a better match between university research and global need

  • There are hopes for progress on open-access publishing and drug affordability

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An attempt to galvanise UK universities to direct research at global health and neglected diseases while making their findings more available to people in developing countries is being launched next month.
 
An online index will grade UK universities according to the level and impact of their research on global health and neglected diseases.
 
It will also rank them according to how accessible their findings are to other researchers, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries. Users will be able to explore the various results and get information on how to use the index to advocate for change.
 
The project is a collaboration between Medsin-UK, a student global health network, and the UK branch of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM), an international student-led NGO that calls for global health research and intellectual property reform at universities.
 

“The concept of neglected diseases is about the failure of the market to address public health needs when they predominantly or exclusively affect poor people.”

Rachel Cohen, DNDi

Dzintars Gotham, UAEM’s European coordinator, tells SciDev.Net he hopes the index will encourage universities to “change their research systems to make them more directed by global need”.
 
He adds: “We also hope universities will adopt concrete policies to both make their research accessible in terms of open-access publishing and ensure the drugs they develop are affordable in the developing world through socially responsible licensing policies.”
 
Gotham says that while UK universities do more neglected disease research than those in other countries, they must do more given the global burden of these diseases. He says there is no coherent commitment to this goal across all universities, so “we really want them to systematically embrace this”.
 
Gotham adds that universities are uniquely placed to tackle neglected disease research because they are free from a profit-driven mandate and so have “more flexibility to adopt globally minded strategies”.

He says UAEM’s North American ‘report card’ — the forerunner of the UK research index — has brought “concrete changes” to the American research landscape in global health.
 
“A number of socially responsible licensing policies were adopted, which means that the technologies they [US and Canadian universities] develop are made affordable in developing countries through contractual provisions,” he says.
 
Rachel Cohen, regional executive director for the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) in North America, tells SciDev.Net that “universities are among the most important non-profit research institutions on the planet”.
 
“The concept of neglected diseases is about the failure of the market to address public health needs when they predominantly or exclusively affect poor people”, and the failure of public policies to correct this imbalance, she says. The Ebola crisis is just one example of the “lack of effective treatments, diagnostics and vaccines for neglected diseases writ large,” she adds.
 
Cohen says universities could be a major part of the solution for neglected diseases.
 
“They could help dramatically turn the tide against neglected diseases by making serious commitments to innovation and to provisions in licensing agreements that will guarantee affordability and access for patients,” she says.
 
The UAEM Report Card concept is “so important” because it offers “the only comprehensive picture” of academic investment in neglected disease research, she says.
 
Gotham says that there are currently only plans to look at the research practice of “well-funded research universities” in the United Kingdom, although a team in Germany is also looking into replicating the project.
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