How local knowledge can boost scientific studies
More should be done to build bridges between formal scientific research and informal grassroots innovations, says Anil Gupta.
Local communities across the developing world deal with technological or institutional problems in different ways. Often they simply learn to live with them. But sometimes they develop successful solutions, which may or may not be optimal.
In almost all cases, the solutions that work well are not incorporated into institutional research programmes. There is a gap between the world's formal and informal knowledge production systems, and in the agenda-setting arrangements of formal scientific institutions.
Yet local knowledge can help advance scientific studies.
Women Farmers in Bangladesh's Tangail district for example, cut the number of roots on sweet potato plants down to one or two before planting. This guarantees there will only be one or two potatoes at each node, and that these will be rounder with thicker skins than normal potatoes because of the extra nutrients they receive. Consumers prefer round potatoes and the thick skin lengthens their shelf life, allowing farmers to keep their crops until they can get the best price for them.
In Gujarat, India, local farmers use a traditional form of pest control in pulse crops. They crush leaves of the plant Combretum ovalifoium together with blister beetles and disperse them through fields of the local pulse, pigeon pea. Pests, including blister beetles themselves, are repelled from the crops, perhaps because of alarm pheromones released by the beetles.
Other examples of simple yet effective grassroots solutions developed in India but applicable the world over include converting motorcycles into ploughs and designing switches that are remote-controlled by mobile phones. The switches can be used to manage pumps or other appliances at a fraction of the cost of internationally available solutions.
Kanak Das, an innovator in Assam, North East India, has harnessed the energy generated by undulations and bumps on the road ― usually dissipated by shock-absorbing springs ― to propel the cycle itself by transferring this energy to the rear wheel through gears. This platform technology can be used in many means of transport.
The Honey Bee Network, set up in India in 1988, brings together innovators and traditional knowledge holders from different communities and protects their intellectual property rights. The network has built up a database of tens of thousands of innovations and traditional practices, which are shared between members in 77 countries through regional newsletters and websites.
The concepts of prior informed consent and benefit-sharing were developed by the Honey Bee Network to protect the knowledge rights of economically poor people long before either the Convention on Biological Diversity or the international agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights were established.
Yet despite the network's efforts, scientists in universities and research laboratories around the world have continued to ignore local knowledge and innovations. In the 18 years of the Honey Bee Network's existence, less than 18 experiments based on its practices have been carried out in formal labs or research stations.
Now a Memorandum of Understanding between India's National Innovation Foundation (NIF), the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Botanical Survey of India has started building the bridge between formal and informal science, thanks to the support of R A Mashelkar, Chairperson of NIF and previously director general of CSIR.
But at international level, the gap still remains.
Local innovations could help inform scientific research, if only scientists would invest the proper resources into exploring them.
Scientists do not respond as enthusiastically as they should because they are often sceptical about the value of traditional knowledge. There are few opportunities for understanding the real potential of grassroots innovations and the rewards of validating or further developing them may seem limited.
Peer pressure can push scientists to focus on high-impact research with wide visibility and students shy away from work that won't guarantee them a successful career. Sometimes there is simply a lack of encouragement, or even authorisation, from research heads for such work.
A bias towards chemical-intensive technologies can also exist and often researchers are put off because the protocols for validating non-chemical grassroots innovations require different approaches.
Lastly, the pressure from local innovators and traditional knowledge holders to influence policies is feeble, fragmented and easy to ignore.
Yet in my more than 25 years of experience serving on scientific committees, I have not found a complete lack of awareness of the need to work on grassroots innovations. So why has it taken so long to build the bridges between formal and informal science?
The NIF — set up by the Department of Science and Technology in 2000 to provide institutional support for scaling up grassroots innovations — works with the Honey Bee Network and has an annual budget of about US$300,000.
Having sold products developed by grassroots innovators across five continents, the NIF has proved that there is space in the global market for these types of goods. But the speed, scope and scale of these markets can become much bigger with the addition of formal scientific research.
One way to strengthen existing efforts would be to encourage more partnerships between scientists and local innovators. Special partnership awards and grants could be given to cases where scientists work with innovators, for example.
Alternatively, specific government funds could be allocated to support innovators wanting to hire scientists to work on their problems and solutions. Funds could also be given to support research projects that add value to or scale-up local knowledge after blending it with modern scientific technologies.
Creating a global grassroots innovation foundation could also help blend formal and informal science to address persistent problems of survival in marginal environments. Billions are spent on solving the problems of the poor, but not the millions it would take to forge partnerships between informal and formal science around the world to develop people-oriented sustainable technologies.
We should also increase the dialogue and debate on informal knowledge and its role in informing formal science in each scientific discipline. For example, more international scientific disciplinary conferences could include sessions on work bridging the gap between formal and informal science.
The ethical issues associated with extracting local knowledge without recognition must be more openly debated in science academies, and researchers' tendency to use proprietary or community knowledge without prior informed consent must be tempered.
Examples of cases where grassroots knowledge and modern science have been successfully combined should also be incorporated into national educational curricula to increase students' awareness and respect for this type of work from the school level.
By adopting these measures, governments around the world can help harness local knowledge and build on grassroots innovations to help advance our scientific endeavours. This will also help in developing a knowledge-intensive approach to poverty alleviation and generating employment.
Anil Gupta is the executive vice-chairperson of the National Innovation Foundation in India and a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.