Research for development

The UK Department for International Development's research chief discusses priorities.

Chris Whitty, DFID's head of research. Credit: UCLH / NHS.

Chris Whitty became head of research at the UK Department for International Development last month. Nature News caught up with Whitty, a clinical epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, to find out more about the department's ambitious five-year research strategy.

With your background of clinical research on malaria and other tropical diseases, what do you think you will bring to the job?

The fact that DFID has appointed a research scientist to this post rather than an administrator from the civil service is a clear recognition that DFID want this programme to be driven by science rather than by process. If we're to get good value for money and have a major impact in reducing poverty and diseases that kill people, and improving nutrition, we have to have a much stronger research base.

How much money has been allocated for the research strategy and how will it be spent?

The commitment at the moment is up to £1 billion (US$1.5 billion) over five years. Obviously under the current economic circumstances it would be silly to say that's guaranteed, but I think there's a strong commitment within DFID to maintain a substantial research strand.

Most of the research will actually be done in developing countries.

Health and sustainable agriculture have historically been areas that DFID has had a big interest in and we intend to continue that, and we are increasing our interest in climate change. In all of the five areas we're interested in — health, sustainable agriculture, climate change, growth and governance — we're increasing our spend.

There is already a huge body of research on climate change, how does DFID's research fit in with that?

It focuses on countries where there is poverty, and it has broadly two themes. One is adaptation. There's an acceptance that the biggest hit for people in developing countries is that their capacity to adapt is lower than in countries with a bigger infrastructure. The second, smaller strand is modelling. Most climate models don't look with particular granularity at areas around the equator, which is where the majority of poverty tends to be.

And then we are interested in mitigation. At the moment developing countries don't really contribute much in terms of carbon. We need to identify the particular things we can do to make sure that we don't limit those countries' growth, but at the same time ensure that growth can be carbon minimized.

What sort of research will DFID's health programme support?

Our job is to improve the lives of people in developing countries. We take a medium-term view, so fundamental research into diseases of poverty is extremely important, but is not our particular area of interest. We're interested in things that are likely to have an impact in the next five to ten years. That may involve researching new technologies, for example we invest heavily in public–private partnerships for developing new drugs, new diagnostic techniques, new vaccines.

We also do quite a lot on health-systems research because we recognize that for most diseases in Africa and Asia, for example malaria, every case could be cured with existing drugs, yet most people don't get them. There's a researchable question in why 70% of the people who need the drugs [for malaria] don't get them.

What does governance research involve?

It's a massive area, but to take an example, one of the big problems for us is fragile states, places like Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo. And the questions are around how to prevent them from getting into that state, and when they're in that state, how do we build institutions to support the population.

That sounds like social science. How does a clinical malaria researcher oversee social-policy research?

I think one of the reasons that DFID asked me to do this job is that I do social science and economic research as well as harder science research. Obviously it's not me who's designing the programmes or peer reviewing them. There's a team of people in all of these areas who are specialists who actually make the calls and coordinate the assessment.

Since the research strategy was announced a year ago, what progress has been made?

We are in the process of starting a group of senior research fellows from universities in the UK and overseas who will help us hone down our research thinking.

And results of some of the investments we've previously made have come through: a new antimalarial was launched as a licensed drug recently. It was a paediatric version of artemether-lumefantrine, marketed for adults as Coartem by Novartis.

By 2013, the end of the current strategy, what would you like to have achieved?

Let's take agriculture first. What we'd like to see is several of the new projects now coming out of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) beginning to be made ready to go to market in developing countries. Predicting which projects will actually win at this point in time is difficult. It might be a high-yielding rice, or it might be wheat that's resistant to rust, it might be cassava that's able to tolerate change in temperature, and climate change.

With climate change there are many things we'd like to see: new technologies or new ways of doing things that take account of changing climate patterns, particularly changed water patterns, including changed rainfall.

In growth, we'd like to see which of the technologies or systems for doing things will allow developing countries to maximize the speed of their growth. It's clear that in the long run the way to deal with development is to get countries to grow to the point where they are completely self-sustaining. That has been the experience in southeast Asia. Forty years ago, they were in a very poor position. That's clearly not the case now.

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Sanderson, K. Research for development. Nature (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2009.404

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