Wake-up call for PNG scientists

Editorial, Normal

The National, Friday, 27th May 2011

THE story this week that PNG researchers, along with others from Australia and Costa Rica, have made a breakthrough for treatment of snake bite victims is excellent news not just for this most neglected health risk in PNG and throughout the world but also for the small PNG scientific community.
For a long time, it has been held that PNG is the last frontier for science and medicine but any new discoveries made have always been credited to outside researchers.
The BBC team that focused on just one region of PNG, the Mt Bosavi area of Southern Highlands, reported to the world that it had discovered several new plant and animal species. Other discoveries of marine life have been made in PNG waters.
There, in the jungles, below the earth or in the depths of our rivers and seas, might lie an answer to some debilitating plant or animal disease if only one were to discover it.
That is the exclusive preserve of those wild-eyed bunch with no dress sense who spend maddening hours studying objects under the microscope or months observing nature that we call scientists.
PNG desperately needs its own scientists, and lots of them, in every field of study.
The University of PNG has been in existence since 1967 and the University of Technology shortly after that but we are yet to see the emergence of our own scientists and technocrats.
It is not good enough that our doctors of philosophy graduate from the world’s best universities and have “Dr” affixed to their names who are full of the knowledge that others before them have pioneered.
We want PNG’s intellectual gurus to contribute to the knowledge wealth of the world, new knowledge which they pioneer and champion. And, not only new knowledge but knowledge that can be applied to improve social, economic and atmospheric conditions in the world.
We want them to contribute to the world knowledge which they have gleaned from Papua New Guinean soil.
We want to see the emergence of PNG’s own biologists, chemists, geneticists, geologists, volcanologists and any other number of experts in fields who consider their own country as their laboratory and where they do very serious work in.
By now universities in-country ought to be using text books written by Papua New Guineans in different fields or referring to case studies in-country. Original and ground breaking research by Papua New Guineans ought to be published in respected science and medical journals around the world.
This is the frontier that Papua New Guineans must aim to conquer. So far there is a feeling that our universities and colleges of higher education are downgrading their aims, perhaps to please the politician who must in the end fund the budgets of the institutions, to prepare their charges for jobs rather than for higher levels of inquiry and learning which is the preserve of scientists.
The University of Technology, for instance, has been pushing out graduates in technological fields for over three decades now. One would have thought that by now we would have invented something distinctly Papua New Guinean.
The institution was already into applied technology such as small hydropower schemes as far back as 1974 but, today, communities around the country are still crying for technology to harness the power potent in the numerous rivers and streams around the country, in the wind and thermal zones scattered throughout PNG.
The breakthrough with the anti-venom mentioned at the start of this discussion does not sound spectacular, but it has global implications.
For one, if this discovery enters the assembly line, Papua New Guinea may soon supply anti-venoms for snake bite victims in the United States.
Anti-venoms have run drastically short in the United States following the shutdown by FDA approved coral snake anti-venom makers, Pfizer, in 2003.
Those anti-venoms on the shelf from the period are running out and an alarm has been sounded in the United States. The makers cannot sustain a feasible production line for anti-venoms because snake bite victims are far too few. So here is a niche market that PNG can enter for both commercial and humanitarian reasons.
The pioneering work done by the National Agriculture Research Institute on certain agricultural crops, particularly applying genetic engineering to come up with drought-resistant and quicker-producing crops, is another technology that could be exported to drought- and famine-stricken parts of the world.