Saturday, December 3, 2011

Peter Singer

There was another great talk at Rotman this week, by Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada.  

With boyish enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, he described the scope of the global challenges in health and how we must bring rogether science, ethics, and business to address these problems.  Grand Challenges Canada is trying to do just that, innovating on all three fronts.

'Smelly socks' is a great example of on-the-ground - literally - science.   Motivated by the observation that mosquitoes were attracted to smelly socks lying on the ground after a game of soccer, researchers wondered if isolating what made the socks attractive could help in fighting malaria.  Bed nets protect you from mosquitoes inside your home; this can be complemented by placing something outside your home that draws the mosquitoes away.  The research in Tanzania by Dr. Fedros Okumu is being funded jointly by Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

There were several main themes in Singer's talk:

The imperative for innovation In my MBA course, we use this defintion of innovation: fresh thinking that creates value.  A few years ago, there would be quite a debate about whether the word 'shareholder' had to precede value; lately there is no such discussion.  I believe the applicability of innovation to non-business problems is much more accepted.  Singer advocates for integrated innovation, encompassing technological, social and business innovation.
 The need for business involvement:  profitable commercialization  accelerates adoption and distribution.  A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania is Africa's largest producer of anti-malarial bednets.  Kick-started by funding from the Acumen Fund (a social investment fund), A to Z now produces 29m bednets a year, and provides jobs for 7,000.  This kind of growth is possible because A to Z has a viable, self-supporting business.  Serum Institute in India produces half the vaccines in the world, including meningitis vaccine at 50 cents a pop.  Of course, business involvement raises huge ethical problems too.  Is it reasonable to work with Monsanto, the poster child for bad corporate citizenship, on much-maligned genetically modified crop systems when those crops could save millions from starvation? 
The importance of local involvement:   A vaginal microbicide to fight HIV in South Africa is succeeding with South African sex workers.  Other parts of the world are not seeing the same success rate.  Singer hypothesizes that this is because in South Africa the women use the microbicide just before sex, rather than once a day elsewhere.  It was the sex workers themselves who argued for this approach, because they were working with local people they were comfortable talking to about this sensitive issue. 

The benefits of mixing 'big science' and 'small science':  The Gates Foundation is a good example of an organization that first funded big top-down science and is now also funding many smaller initiatives as well. It's one thing to do the big science to develop antiretrovirals, but how do you get them to the children of HIV-positive mothers in the crucial hours right after birth?  If you can do that, you can prevent or at least vastly reduce the virus' ability to lodge in the child's body and develop into AIDS later.    How about putting in an aluminum pouch, such as we use for ketchup, and giving it to a woman any time during pregnancy with instructions to use it right after birth?  Not big science, but big impact.

The value of collaboration: - Grand Challenges Canada has worked with the Gates Foundation, the Canadian government (who channels some foreign aid money through GCC), the Norwegian government,  and the World Bank to amplify their efforts.
Singer is passionate in his search for solutions to global grand challenges.  He bubbles with a dazzling array of ideas, more than I can cover in a short post - saving lives at birth, unlocking intellectual potential through proper treatment of children, He believes is starting small, in looking at at approaches, and, most importantly, in bringing these initiatives to scale.  Not just scale on individual projects, but finding a way to bring a plethora of projects to scale, simultaneously.

No comments: