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Time for more transdisciplinary and participatory research on malaria

SciDev.Net's recent news article on the DDT controversy in Kenya (see DDT row splits Kenya's scientific community, 22 August 2003) deserves further comment. Barriers to malaria control in Africa exist at the technical, administrative and community levels. The latter — in the form of community apathy towards the adoption of alternatives to DDT — is a major frustration to health departments. Poverty and insensitivity of past malaria research to the general plight of many rural communities are partly to blame. But these factors probably do not entirely explain why previous North-South scientific collaborative efforts have failed to overcome such apathy.

In order to better understand this issue, it is worth considering how malaria researchers actually spend their productive time. In simple terms, the following diagram can be used to categorise scientific researchers: 

The majority of scientific researchers spend their working life in non-participatory basic research (Cell 1); the next largest group are involved in non-participatory applied research (Cell 2); a much smaller group conducts participatory applied research (Cell 3); only a small minority is interested in participatory applied research that also explores means for long-term sustainability of interventions (Cell 4). 

Suffice to say that malaria research resulting from non-participatory basic science is likely to end up being a luxury in many African countries. Instead, Africa urgently needs practical solutions based on existing scientific knowledge, with the participation of rural communities to ensure the adoption and sustainability of such solutions. A more balanced distribution of scientific researchers among these four working styles is therefore required to enhance the development and adoption of appropriate technologies for malaria control. 

Why do researchers appear to prefer non-participatory malaria research to dealing with participatory issues? A simple explanation might be a natural reluctance to get drawn into the whirlpool of complex health and socio-economic problems affecting target communities. A more plausible but related explanation would be the researchers’ lack of appropriate methodological approaches with which to simultaneously deal with malaria and other health and livelihood issues. 

Either way, a paradigm shift from traditional single-disciplinary research approaches to transdisciplinary and participatory ones — with a higher potential to help understand and act on the disease’s ecological, community, institutional and socio-economic determining factors — is essential to the future of malaria control, especially in Africa. Only then can we objectively discuss the issue of DDT.