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  • Presidential award for Ugandan research stirs up debate

[KAMPALA] A Ugandan scientist trying to use the soapberry plant to fight mosquitoes has received US$400,000 from Yoweri Museveni's presidential initiative fund.

Miph Musoke, formerly at the Uganda Virus Research Institute and now a researcher at the privately run Nkumba University, uses the soapberry plant, Phytolacca dodecandra, to kill the larvae of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

But the presidential award to Musoke, announced last month (1 May), has been criticised by Augustus Nuwagaba, an economics professor at Makerere University.

"I expected president Museveni to announce [the] creation of a fully fledged Ministry of Science and Technology in the new cabinet portfolios he released [recently]," said Nuwagaba, adding that this should be the arena where scientific research and innovations are "identified, prioritised and funded".

According to Nuwagaba, it was important to institutionalise, rather than personalise, state funding for research.

Nuwagaba said that a science ministry could design policies for national science and technology development, develop a curriculum to prioritise training, and handle innovations and technological developments — and it should also be the official channel for funding research.

Musoke will not provide details of his research because it is still at an early stage and he said revealing details may jeopardise his intellectual property.

But he told SciDev.Net that he crushes the plant, which grows wild in Uganda and is locally known as oluwoko, and spreads it wherever the mosquitoes breed to reduce the number of larvae.

The first phase of his work focused on training local communities, especially farmers, on the sustainable use of the plant. The second phase, which will be supported by the award, will enable him to move towards product development. A third phase will involve commercialisation of the product, with help from the government or the private sector.

Richard Tushemereirwe, a presidential assistant on science and technology, said the grant was a routine award through the Presidential Support to Scientists initiative — a loose arrangement set up under the state-run Uganda National Council for Science and Technology that seeks to motivate scientists carrying out promising work.

"Miph has a big challenge as he has not even a product prototype yet in place. We have a lot of hope in his work — to control [the] breeding of deadly vectors causing high mortality, mainly to our children and pregnant mothers," said Tushemereirwe.

Every day, an estimated 300 people in Uganda die from malaria, according to the Ministry of Health's Malaria Control Programme.