In search of good ideas

In search of good ideas
by Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen

As a family physician with a PhD in population health, Ottawa’s Gail Webber is used to tackling challenges, big and small. But creating a two-minute video to explain why her idea to save mothers in rural Africa deserves federal research funding was a new challenge and one that took her outside her comfort zone. As did the fact that the public was invited to vote on the video.
It’s all part of a new approach to foreign aid that considers public engagement — and how convincingly scientists can make their cases to taxpayers — a factor in deciding how to distribute development dollars.
“Please vote for this bold idea,” says Webber, dressed in surgical scrubs for the video, after explaining that women in rural Tanzania have a one-in-23 risk of dying during childbirth. “These women and their families deserve a better chance at survival.”
Webber’s “bold idea” is innovative and simple. She plans to bring help to the many women in Tanzania who cannot get to a hospital, or even a clinic or health-care worker, to give birth. She proposes providing women who give birth at home — an estimated 60 per cent of women in rural Tanzania — medicine to prevent postpartum bleeding and infection, a cheap, relatively simple, treatment that could reduce maternal deaths there by about one-third.
And that research, done with the partnership of Tanzanian doctor Bwire Chirangi, should begin in the next few months.
Webber is one of 19 Canadian researchers who have been awarded money — $100,000 in her case — through the Canadian Rising Stars program administered by Grand Challenges Canada, that is aimed at solving some of the world’s major health challenges. It is shaking up the way international development money is administered in the process.
Grand Challenges, a year-old not-for-profit organization, is the lead agency administering the Development Innovation Fund announced in the 2008 federal budget. It aims to encourage innovative thinking about how to help the developing world, thinking that will involve not only medical and scientific solutions, but business and social solutions as well.
And public engagement is one way decisions are made about whose project and ideas should move forward, although peer review is the deciding factor in awarding funding.
“We want to engage the public in these global health issues and bring attention to (Canadian scientist),” said Raymond Shih, a strategy and operations analyst with Grand Challenges. “It is important for them to be able to communicate their ideas, as a taxpayer you should have some stake in where that money is going.”
He said the organization has got “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from those involved, scientists, doctors and researchers who are more used to filling out grant applications than making their case to the public on video. “I think a lot of them enjoyed the opportunity … it is a platform to say why their ideas are important.”
You get a sense of the kind of new ideas Grand Challenges Canada is looking for when you consider another project that has recently received money from the organization, along with international attention.
Grand Challenges, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, was behind a grant to help a Tanzanian doctor develop a trap to catch and kill mosquitoes — and, thus, fight malaria — with the help of smelly socks. Fredros Okumu and his scientific team discovered that smelly socks attract four times as many mosquitoes as humans do. The traps he is building could help guard against malaria outdoors and would complement bed nets and bug spray.
Grand Challenges Canada, which works closely with the Gates Foundation, is philosophically based on a century-old concept that was originally applied to math problems — to identify leading problems and seek solutions.
It is applying that approach to global health challenges and it looks for ideas that come with a business case and consideration about agencies that could put it into action — based on the premise that such integrated ideas have a better chance of working and making a difference.
Webber’s idea is innovative in its simplicity. It recognizes that improving the appallingly high rates of maternal death in sub-Saharan Africa will require solutions that understand what life is really like for the poorest women there. If 60 per cent of rural women in parts of Tanzania give birth at home, then the solutions must come to them and they must be simple and realistic.
Webber acknowledges that the drugs to deal with bleeding and infection won’t solve all the problems with maternal mortality in Africa, but the project should make a difference to some of the women who need help the most. And that really is a bold idea.
Elizabeth Payne is a member of the Citizen’s editorial board. E-mail:
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