Rewarding Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is a critical issue in the management of global survival and environmental preservation. Increasingly, it is extending its reach across a broad multidisciplinary policy canvas, impacting on economic, social and cultural spheres aimed at securing an improved quality of life for the international community.

Access to sustainable health care, education, food and water are some of the important sustainability challenges society faces, and it is in these fields that three young researchers recently received accolades for their cutting-edge work. Arul Chib has been using information and communication technology (ICT) as a tool for providing medical information (mobile health), and learning opportunities to children and youth in remote communities; Rajeev Bhat's research on wild legumes explores nutritious and available alternatives to food supply based on local practices and traditional knowledge; and Junguo Liu's work on water and ecosystem services strives for a more sustainable approach to water consumption.

The awardees' applied research and contribution to the communities they are connected with are a common feature of the ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development, given annually to young scientists and researchers based in Asia and the Pacific.

The award is a joint initiative of ProSPER.Net, an alliance of higher education institutions located in Asia-Pacific, created under the auspices of the Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Programme of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, and Elsevier, a publisher of academic information, mainly through Scopus, the largest database of peer-reviewed literature.

ProSPER.Net aims to integrate sustainability issues in different fields of postgraduate curricula, with the award categories changing every year so to promote applied research in similarly different fields of endeavour.

For 2011, the awarded categories covered the areas of ICT for Sustainable Development, Science and Technology with a Focus on Poverty Eradication, and Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management. A panel of three experts in each of the areas selects three finalists to present their work at a symposium, as part of the judgment process. In 2011, the University of the Philippines hosted the symposium and award ceremony in mid-July.

The criteria applied to select winners comprise the number and quality of publications and patents, the number of citations of their work as well as documented social impact. Winners receive a cash award and a fellowship provided by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, allowing them to spend up to a year collaborating with any institution of their choosing in Germany.

"The ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award plays an important role in encouraging young talented researchers to work in sustainable development. There are not many avenues for recognition and support for young academics in this area; government and industry support is much more common for more obviously profitable areas of research", said Ed Cutrell, panelist of the ICT for Sustainable Development category in 2011. He further argued that "The Young Scientist Award is a small but important effort to recognize excellence in academic research in sustainable development, with the particular goal of recognizing work that has a real impact on people's lives."1

Although scientists are stereotyped as staying in their laboratories, focused on research to find solutions for specific problems affecting humanity, the three young awarded scientists went beyond academia, looking at the world's current problems, creatively, to obtain outcomes that ultimately promote social inclusion, improve livelihood in general, and poor communities in particular, and in the process, stimulate a better understanding and use of natural resources.

Aware of the need to influence policy in order to scale up local solutions developed and implemented in their communities, the winning researchers are also connecting with different stakeholders, including local authorities, national government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private sector and international organizations, in the policy-making processes, advising and providing scientific knowledge through research.

It is also worth noting that throughout the winners' work, it is possible to identify some questions that permeate sustainable development related research. For instance, how to respond to local challenges arising out of global unsustainable practices? How to develop a common language to problems spanning a wide range of disciplines affecting different stakeholders? How to assess the effectiveness of social experiments, and extend the results to other communities, in other contexts?

These have been the pursuit of the three young and promising researchers, winners of the 2011 ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development. Their continuous efforts in addressing the challenges of our sustainable subsistence in a world of finite natural resources signalled their consciousness about the required transformations, especially in academia, to translate scientific findings into practical and effective solutions, ultimately helping to improve people's lives.

Arul Chib was the winner of the 2011 ProSPER.Net-Scopus Young Scientist Award in Sustainable Development, in the category of ICT for Sustainable Development

Arul Chib from Singapore's Nanyang Technological University has been working with ICT applications for health and education. He has provided through his interventions, better health care to communities in remote areas, particularly women and marginalized groups in countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Peru, Singapore, Thailand, and Uganda.

Specifically, Chib examines the impact of development campaigns delivered via a range of innovative information and communication technologies. His theoretical framework examines the impact process, while taking a critical perspective to balance the prevailing positivistic views. Chib has contributed to the conceptual progress of the discipline by proposing frameworks of analysis, including the ICT for healthcare development model and the Technology-Community-Management model. These theoretical models draw upon literature from the fields of technology, communication, social sciences, healthcare and management sciences.

Chib's work in mobile health has been at the intersection of technological development, rural healthcare deployment and social scientific research. Making use of the extensive mobile phone diffusion in developing countries, Chib worked with mobile phone and data-sending mobile technology to improve communication and medical information between health workers and local communities.

In Aceh, Indonesia, an area affected by the 2004 tsunami, mobile health proved to be effective, decreasing the response-time in critical cases, stimulating a prophylactic approach to health care through facilitated communication between rural midwives and the urban health infrastructure, thus leading to improved maternal and infant health outcomes. Mobile health for specific groups has also been applied in Nepal, mainly in delivering health care for women. In China, it has been an important tool for doctors working in remote areas to access useful information.

Chib has further developed educational multimedia games that expand learning opportunities for children as part of rehabilitation activities in disaster-affected areas, such as India, as well as interactive multimedia games with educational content related to reproductive health, particularly HIV/AIDS, a project jointly developed with a Peruvian NGO - Instituto Peruano de Paternidad Responsable (Peruvian Institute for Responsible Paternity).

Continuing work at the intersection of HIV/AIDS, most recently, Chib has helped an NGO, Text to Change, to improve an SMS program developed to increase knowledge levels about HIV/AIDS for the general population in rural Uganda, and thus influence participants to access HIV Counselling and Testing services. This pilot study explored the efficacy of a mobile health campaign using SMS as an easy, cost-efficient, ubiquitous mobile technology to measure and disseminate specific knowledge and to promote HIV/AIDS testing at clinics in rural Uganda. Over a one-month period, 13 HIV/AIDS quiz questions were sent to 10,000 mobile subscribers. The campaign contributed to the success in increasing knowledge levels on a mass scale.

Beyond the impact of his own research, at the Singapore Internet Research Center, Chib oversees a research-capacity building small-grants programme that has funded emerging Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) researchers in eight Asian countries, and which is poised to expand globally to Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.2


1 For more information on the award, winners and runners-up, visit www.ias.unu.edu/efsd/prospernet/ysa

2 Further details can be found at www.sirca.org.sg.