Academic medicine in francophone Africa – A conversation with Hugues Abriel

Published by Access 2 Perspectives on

In 2020/21, Hugues Abriel took a sabbatical to visit some of his colleagues in francophone Africa. He shares with us his experiences and what led to that journey in the first place. What motivates him is the question, of how we as scholars in Europe can reduce the barriers and obstacles that still remain for many of our colleagues who work at African universities and research institutions to fully participate in what we like to call “the global scientific community”.
Hugues recorded 12 episodes for his podcast show “Sabbatique en Afrique” and will share a few insights from the conversations he had in Congo and Morocco.

Hugues Abriel

I find myself to be extremely privileged to be able to work as a scientist/researcher and I find it very unfair that an unbelievable number of young persons on Earth with the same aspirations are not able to be part of our communities. We like to say that “Science has no borders” – this is often not the reality experienced by an academic scientist from RD Congo.

Hugues Abriel

Hugues Abriel, MD PhD, is a biologist (ETH Zurich, 1989) and physician (University of Lausanne, 1994). He completed his PhD in medicine and life sciences (specializing in medical physiology) at the University of Lausanne in 1995. Since 2009, Hugues Abriel has been a Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Bern. He is since 2022 one of the members (vice-rector for research) of the executive board of the University of Bern. Hugues Abriel is particularly interested in the molecular and genetic aspects of medicine. He has been in close contact with young doctors and researchers from French-speaking African universities for several years. He has just finished an academic sabbatical spent at the Universities of Kinshasa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Fez (Morocco).

Image credit: Hugues Abriel, Cow from Kasaï (DR Congo) – Colline sacrée de Malandji (Kananga)

Which researcher – dead or alive – do you find inspiring? Many – but I would like to give the credit to our colleagues from underrepresented parts of the world.

What is your favorite animal and why? The cow – because I spent a significant part of my childhood and as a teenager with them.

Name your (current) favorite song and interpret/group. Le sud – Nino Ferrer

What is your favorite dish/meal? Italian and North-African dishes (as many vegetables as possible and with some harissa


Jo: Welcome to Access 2 Perspectives Conversation. My name is Jo Havemann and today we have Hugues Abriel. Welcome, Hugues. 

Hugues: Hello, Jo. Nice to meet with you today. 

Jo: It’s a great pleasure having you here. We met because we both have a regional interest on the continent of Africa and for the working environment or language group. For me, it’s more the Anglophone parts and countries and probably for you as well as Francophone French speaking Africa. And we got to know each other through my work with Africarchives, the African publishing platform, and your collaborations with researchers in the French speaking countries across Africa. Just for a little bit of background, maybe you can also say more about yourself, but you are a biologist and also physician educated in ETH Zurich and University of Lausanne.You did your PhD in medicine and life Sciences, specializing in medical physiology at the University of Lausanne and then since 2009 you have been and continue to be a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Bern. We also worked together when I was invited to give a course with the realms of open science and research project management. So yeah, maybe so much for the background. Would you like to add anything else about your career trajectory? And then how did you feel if you would fill in some gaps and then how did you get to work on projects together with African colleagues and the work you’re doing today? 

Hugues: Okay, so yes, Switzerland is a country where we speak, let’s say many languages, at least three to four. And I was born and raised in French speaking Switzerland, Geneva. And what I may want to add about my education is that something I learned well, more or less recently. And I think it’s important for me also for my motivations. I’m a first Gen. I’m someone coming up from my family where no one studied before, no one went to University. And for whatever reason, I could benefit from free public outstanding education. And it made me clear how privileged I was to be born in Switzerland and to benefit from that and studying first at the ETH Zurich and then at the University of Lausanne where I got top education. And then I had a very straightforward academic career. I worked for a company for seven months. I have my very small experience in, let’s call it a private industry. It was a start up. That’s where I learned a lot about what I do not want to do. And I was very happy to be back into academia. 

Jo: Can you spend maybe two or three sentences on what you experienced in the industry or in the free market that made you go back to academia? Like what were the triggers where you said, ‘oh this is not for me, I want to go back to school’. 

Hugues: Well, this was obviously a very specific experience, right? I mean, one cannot generalize, but I could not identify myself to the project, this was not my project. It was something that was the project of the company, a small startup company. I thought the project would be interesting, but actually I could not invest any emotions in this project somehow because it was not my project and this freedom that I could get back or I knew that I would get in academia in academic environment to think about your own product, to draft your product, to write it, to convince your colleagues that this is something that is worth funding. So I could only find it in this academic environment. And then there is the other aspect of being at a private company where at the end you have to work with a product, you have to somehow sell a product. And this is not something that I’m too much interested in. I’m much more attracted by the idea of as a scientist creating new knowledge and transmitting the new knowledge. 

Jo: Yeah, I think that makes sense. There are different personalities in the world of research, which is why it makes sense to have these two routes available. 

Hugues: Yes, I agree. I’m sure that many colleagues, researchers, scientists, whoever can be extremely happy in a private company. And some of them are just saying that they just do not like the academic environment and the rules and the sort of competitions or politics of academia. For me, that was never a problem.

Jo:  It’s just different pressure points. And maybe it’s a way to adapt to either system better or worse, or get along and work with the compromises and still see the benefit of the work, as long as we are able to balance and not only work in life, but well being in the job. And I think it’s also, like you said, if you’re more invested in the process or the outcome, that’s a personality thing, maybe. 

Hugues: Yeah. It has to do also with values. Right. I mean, I have to come back to the fact that private industry at the end, I mean, one of the values is an economic value at the end, I think. And it’s not always on the top. Obviously not. I mean, you can be working in research and development in very early phases in, let’s say, the Pharmacy industry, but still at the end, I mean, you understand that you’re working in an environment where you have to sell a product. 

Jo: Yeah. As long as the value is clear and as long as we can align ourselves with a good product to market. I think that’s okay. But once there are too many compromises, then it becomes negative.

Hugues: Yes, that’s right. I see that point too. Yes. 

Jo: Okay. So would you say that being a first generation academic made you also more aware and sensitive to the disparities when it comes to global research and equities? 

Hugues: Yes, indeed. When I started to show interest, to collaborate, work and travel to African universities, It started with one place. It started with the University of Kinshasa seven, eight years ago. So it came quite quickly to my mind that the young people that I was working with or younger or older, actually, were all aspiring to very, very similar things that I was aspiring to when I was their age. But for me, it has been easy to get to where I am now and what I can do now. And for them, it’s sometimes completely impossible. I see how difficult, for instance, it is for young doctors, young students, to get a PhD position somewhere. They have to write motivation letters to hundreds of places in the so-called Western world, and they just do not get any answer right. So it’s as if they would not exist sometimes. And this has been quite a painful experience for me to see this. And again, it has been also clear for me that even though no one around me or showed me the past, everything was here in Switzerland. I went to school and I just followed what I wanted to do or wished to do. 

Jo: Did your parents and other people in the family support you? 

Hugues: Yes, they were quite happy and proud, but nothing special.

Jo: I feel like from what I’ve heard, sometimes I have more connections and friends and colleagues in Kenya and other places. And at some point it gets more important to get food on the table than to pay for school fees, to pursue a career. So that might also be a barrier.

Okay. So when did you get in touch with African or Francophone Africa in particular in the research environment?

Hugues: It’s a bit of a coincidence. As I said, I went through this sort of pretty easy career of getting interesting positions in academia, professorship, group leaders and so on. And when I turned 50, I thought, well, the world is wider than just that, right? All the places. I never really considered that this would be interesting until then. I never went to Africa before, really. And I asked for advices a few friends and told them, I have five weeks and maybe you have ideas where I could spend my five next weeks doing something different. And then they told me, well, University of Kinshasa may be an interesting place for you. We have addresses and colleagues working there. I mean, those people were working at the TPH Tropical Health Institute, University of Basel in Switzerland, and I landed there and I started to work and teach and be in the labs and give seminars and interact with the colleagues there. And that’s how it started, really. This is still quite recent for me. I’m discovering and learning every day about many aspects, cultural aspects of Africa, the diversity of the continent. And then well, more specifically, I’m interested in trying to be involved in this idea of what the future of academic messaging is in these countries. And for me, it was also somehow easier, but also more meaningful to work with colleagues that were speaking or most of them are speaking or at least teaching by using the French language, because there is one barrier, less somehow by using the same language.

Jo: Were the dialects easy to understand? ‘

Hugues: Well, yes, I wouldn’t say there is any French either. They speak French like they speak French. There are many ways to speak French. No, that’s not difficult. It’s funny because sometimes we are using words that are not completely the same. It’s also funny because they are well, those are just anecdotes but in Congo, they also use something like instead of saying this, they also say Septat, like in Belgium, because they were colonized by Belgium. So it brings us a bit together. Well, those are small things. 

Jo: Yeah. Like tragic occurrences in the past, which nowadays leads to funny coincidences.

Hugues: Yes, you’re right. One can make a long list of connections like this. Yes, that’s correct. Jo: My experience is also that in some countries in Africa, they have a harder burden with the colonial past than others. I feel the Kenyans were more of a kind more easily I wouldn’t say it was easy for them, but more easily embraced English as a trading language and see the opportunities and having been forced in the past to learn the language but not make use of it for their own benefits, motivating English as a trading business language, whereas I feel some West African and Anglophone countries, they have a harder time. And I feel like now we need to learn our own languages again and foster them and we need to decolonize.

Yeah. And the reality is somewhere in between. 

Hugues: Yeah. 

Jo: Because cultural identity through language is also important. But at the same time, you can also embrace and take for granted what’s there today, acknowledge the past, and then see how we can all make the best of it. Of the situation. 

Hugues: Yes, I was very surprised. I’ve seen that in other countries. I’m not sure. I’ve seen that in Kinshasa. But then I saw that in Morocco, in one sentence you use at least or you can easily use two to three different languages. And that’s not only when you speak on the street with a friend, but also when you listen to radio. In Kinshasa, they speak mainly Lingala, but half of the sentence is in Lingala and the other half is in French. And it’s a very pragmatic use of language. I like that very much. 

Jo: And in Northern Africa, they have a mix of Arabic, French and then some of the local languages. 

Hugues: Yes. In Morocco, I was surprised. I have to say that French and maybe it has to do with what you just mentioned is that at least the younger generation is not the first foreign language. I mean, they really would like to speak only better. Many of them speak better English than French.

Yeah. I was not expecting that, but I think, well, they have the right to do so. And I understand that they want to do that. On the other hand, I know that you are working a lot on these Indigenous languages, and I think it’s a very interesting topic. The idea of having diversity in communicating science in languages. I think this is an interesting topic. You can’t see it with Indigenous languages. But at least one of my issues is the predominance of English at this stage and the fact that we can use other languages to communicate science. I think it’s super important.

Jo: Yeah. One of the projects we’re working on with Africarchive is called  the colonial Science, and the idea is to translate 180 submissions that came into Africarchive into like other authors, primarily by African researchers, and translate those into six underrepresented languages, African traditional languages. Then we pretty much figured that all the translators, these are professional translators and interpreters. I figured there’s way too many specific, like research topics, specific terms which do not exist in the local languages. And we anticipated NES to build a glossary of new terms. And there was already, not by us africarchive, but our partners from Masakana, which is a continent wide machine translation for African languages organization. 

Hugues: Okay.

Jo: The idea is to translate, and then we figured there’s too many specific terms.

Okay, so now the approach we’re taking is we’re preparing lay summaries through another partner company that’s called Sciencelink. They’re both South African bases, and the lay summaries will be translated to the local languages. And there’s a much more pragmatic approach. And there’s still a lot of new terms to coin or words to create out of the terms that already exist in the language. But then to create new terms with scientific context and I suppose all the disciplines. So it’s quite an effort to actually translate research. 

Hugues: For instance, one technical term I use everyday is electrocardiogram. So there would be a way to have it expressed in like ten to 20 different local languages. 

Jo: Yeah. Let’s limit ourselves to six. So then the translators would look into the language, they are also native speakers of the languages they’re translating to. So if the word electricity and Hertz already exist, then we compose the word. And if there’s no word for electricity, then it’s maybe current, like from water. 

Hugues: Okay. 

Jo: Or in some cases, like in German, we also have English or Latin terms for certain words. In some cases we just remain with Latin or English originals. But the idea is to have it comprehensible for the audience in order to build a scientific language, to make the local languages fit for science discourse. Because now is the question, from your experience in medical research, like I often say to argue for multilingualism and research, irrespective of the discipline, I would argue maybe naively, that most research is culturally embedded, meaning if you translate it to foreign language, you lose information. Would you say that you’ve experienced that in medical research in some cases as well? 

Hugues: Yes. I’m not an expert, but I think I understand that concept that you just mentioned. But the first I mean, I think the most obvious field in medicine where I would see this applying is mental health and psychiatry. So how do you define, how do you study psychosis and hallucinations in a population where having visions is something that is much more normal in the culture? Now, I tell you, I’m looking at the window here and I see a giraffe. So you will tell me, well, there is a problem with me. When someone is saying that, in contrast, when here, she say, well, I’m seeing strained animals, 

Jo: Giraffe with a very short neck, maybe.

Jo:  They would say, well, that’s okay, it’s magic and they accept that. But I’m sure that you may have a hundred, I mean, what you’re saying is that it applies most likely everywhere.

Yes. It’s about anthropology and science and yes, the language here plays a role, obviously. 

Jo: Yeah. But like in Switzerland, you speak French, English, Italian, some dialect, maybe German. And then it depends where you live, what’s the common language on the street and then the shops. Right. So does it mean you have various news channels for each language? Are all languages equally served across the country? 

Hugues: Well, I’m trying to understand the question right now. Obviously, news channels are in three to four different languages. Well, for instance, for me, I’m living in the French part, but I’m working in the German part. And in order for me to be so in tune with the German part of the country, I sort of force myself to look at the German news. 

Jo: So you can also live in a bubble with your own language in the same country. 

Hugues: Yes. 

Jo: And you decide not to be? 

Hugues: Well, no, it would not be good for me. And then I would miss it, I know that I need to have this diversity of inputs. 

Jo: Yeah. And this might seem a bit off topic, but in the sense I’m trying to learn, is that an approach we can also apply to research because you’re originally Francophone yourself, your working environment is English. Is that so? 

Hugues: Yes. English and German in the research group, we work in English, but then the rest is in German, high German. 

Jo: And you publish in English primarily or in French?. 

Hugues: Yes, English.

Jo: And the Congolese colleagues and those in Morocco, would they publish rather in French speaking journals or English? 

Hugues: They would have the choice. And if they think they could get the same visibility and yes, they would rather write in English or in French sorry for my Congolese colleagues, but the other in Morocco, they would, I think, write in Arabic. 

Jo: Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. So from your viewpoint, would you say there’s one lingua frame in research or several? How do you see it?

Hugues:  At this stage I think there is one, yes. For me, it’s different in the sense that I’m quite comfortable in many of these languages. But in general, it is a pity that there is only one. I have to say that’s interesting because I’ve also been interacting with Russian colleagues in the past and before 1989 when there was still a wall across Europe. So there was a big Russian bubble. I think my friend in Russia, they were just all publishing in Russian and they still do that a lot, as you may know very well, there is a corpus of knowledge that is still not sort of translated from there. 

Jo: Yeah, there is Mandarin, Portuguese, Spanish language, Arabic and so on. So it’s just a perception that we have that English is the only lingua franca, there’s probably several. 

Hugues: Yeah. That’s possible. That’s maybe our Western perception that is the case. Yes. Because we somehow had to adapt to that because we had the incentives. We were so evaluated by the fact that we were able to speak, give a seminar in English, and write correct English. You’re right. Yes, that’s correct. 

Jo: And it could also be that Biosciences are heavily English speaking just because it’s industry driven, so much knowledge. 

Hugues: Yes. It’s maybe true that humanities is different. You’re right. 

Jo: Yeah. I’m also a biologist, so I’m just discovering these things recently to open up my viewpoint or changing perspective and trying to understand a bigger picture which wasn’t available, accessible to me naturally. So again, for your Congolese colleagues, there’s a language barrier. So they would prefer French journals. 

Hugues: Yes

Jo: French journals and France for international exposure so that they can have an exchange with them.

Hugues:  Well, for the international exposure, I don’t think that they are particularly attracted to France. Their own history is Belgium for Congo, and there are still a lot of connections from my side. Too many. I’m not sure that my colleagues will be happy with that, but that’s how it is. That’s the reference. I mean, for instance, the whole academic environment, academic working is very based on how it works in Belgium or how it worked in the past in Belgium. This is something that I find extremely interesting how much the African universities have been trying to adapt or mimic the Western types of universities. And I’m quite convinced that there are many more options to learn about new things and to transmit new knowledge. 

Jo:  And there’s also a chapter we’re slowly digging into and thankfully also with open science and recently announced recommendations by UNESCO for the UNESCO open science recommendations. They also explicitly mention Indigenous knowledge and non academic knowledge systems to be inclusive of open science. And I personally also believe I mean, a lot of pharmaceutical and medical research goes into traditional and Indigenous customs and knowledge. There has been and continues to be exploitative research or helicopter science where the providers of the knowledge of medicinal plants never see any benefits from the commercialization of the products.

So that’s something I’m personally passionate about. How can we get Indigenous knowledge acknowledged in the academic system and let Indigenous communities participate to avoid misappropriation of their knowledge so that it becomes a benefit for them? But there’s many dimensions. I think many organizations and projects are also trying to work out approaches that can work for everyone. And that’s certainly something I’m interested in looking into. Is there any project you’ve come across in Congo or Morocco in that direction?

Hugues:  Yes, a little bit, yes. I’ve been traveling once in the center of the country, Congo. I’ve been in contact with a very small University in Kananga, which is very much in the center. And there they were using plants and a mixture of plants that would be extracted to treat sickle cell anemia, which is one of the genetic diseases that is killing a lot of kids. There are many of them. And I’ve been interested because they asked me whether I could support the project somehow. It’s extremely interesting because, as you mentioned, there are many components to it. Right. The first being trained with our scientific approach. So we know how we would address most of these questions. And the first thing that comes to my mind is, what are the molecules in these plants that are active? And mostly there are those molecules there that have a pharmacological activity. And we know that about 60 or even more percent of the drugs that are in the markets have plant origins somehow in the molecules. So there is still a good chance that we will find many more of them. And for them, it’s a bit less important at this stage, even though some of them are very well trained, also chemists or doctors, and they really also would like to know. But at this stage, for them, it’s just to prove that it works and to also have their population to be treated with these plants. And it was extremely interesting because they now have a preparation, they have a product and they produce it. It’s like, in fact, an extract of these plants that the population or the patients have to drink. It’s very surprising because they put this in a small plastic bottle with a red cap, and it looks very Western things. But somehow it was important for them to have these productions and these sort of containers.

You mentioned that there are many, many components to it. And one aspect now for me, it’s just that there is something it looks like that they have been doing studies and it seems that their patients are doing better, and one has to be able to have a scientific sound approach to try to understand what are the molecular mechanisms underlying what they observe.

Jo: Yeah. And I think there are also mechanisms now through open science to acknowledge contribution, by the researchers who have made these observations but might not necessarily have the means to perform the experiments.

Again, it’s not because they wouldn’t know there. I mean, every human being around the world, I think we can all agree, has the same genetic predisposition to develop wisdom or knowledge. It’s just a matter of how much access each of us have to training and equipment to actually perform to our highest capabilities. But now with the Credit Taxonomy we put other references mentioned in the show notes on the blog post. 

Hugues: Credit Taxonomy, it’s the first time I’m hearing this, I think I understand what it means. Jo: But basically, when you publish a research article, there’s an authorship list, which is per discipline sometimes roles and positioning of who has what position in the order of authors mentioned, where as the Credit taxonomy was developed to specify what contribution each author or contributor made and that can also acknowledge data analysts, which is not naturally per research topic or per discipline would be acknowledged with a coauthor. But now the agreement with Credit taxonomy is that everybody who even remotely contributed to the success of a research, which then brought about results which can then be published, should be mentioned as a contributor. And the taxonomy allows us to specify who developed the manuscript, like who did the conceptualization, who designed the experiments, who performed the experiments, who made the data analysis, and that can also give credit to allocatory researchers, like undergraduate students who help with the data analysis or observations. And now, when it comes to south collaborations, geographically speaking, between a Swiss and a Congolese researcher and the researcher says, look, here’s how we treat our patients and as we work in a medical research Institute and we don’t have the research equipment to study the molecular basis of the treatment, but yet these people, and probably not only the professor, but then several there would be mentioned. And whatever research study comes out, even if it was performed in Bern University, because they made the original observation that there’s a treatment on this which actually works to treat this, I just don’t know how it works, which also with many modern drugs, we don’t really know how it works, but some few people get a lot of credit for what they describe in writing. And that I think would also eventually help to bring more funding into the region because the credit is there, the wisdom is proof, the knowledge is kind of a timestamp and it’s documented that these people contributed to and how. So that would make it easier for funders to invest in the right research institutions and the right people working at these institutions to support the research in the region, not only to foster continuation of exporting the molecular work because of the molecular fund. So I think I’m jumping ahead. But in the preparation for this recording, you mentioned that you want to point out the difficulties that you’ve discovered, and we’re going to talk about that a little bit. But like, people have mentioned three or five hindrances for scholarly research in Congo.  Your colleagues there have experiences on a daily basis that surprised you or even shocked you and was like, why does it have to be that way? And then we can maybe talk about what we can do and maybe contribution acknowledgement could be one small step in the right direction, as many more.

Hugues: Well, spontaneously, I noticed, I think, the way science as a community works, it’s a lot about networks. And what place do you have in this network and how visible you are in this network? That’s what I think you learn as a young scientist in this Western world. And it struck me how difficult it was for a scientist, younger and older, to get any visibility in a community. They have their own networks, obviously, but it’s quite limited. It’s quite embraced somehow. It’s very difficult for them to get seen outside. There are exceptions, actually, in the sense, very successful exceptions. I mean, in Kinshasa, there are two or three professors who have been able to publish the best medical journals based on research that has been done on specific diseases there, with funding coming from abroad and most of the time the US. So that’s for me, but for the vast, vast majority, for the younger ones possible to say, well, I’m here, I’m doing science, or I want to contribute to something good in this community because I can do this. I’m a smart person. I can do that. It makes me very sad that it’s not possible for them.

Then obviously, the fact that the infrastructure locally, most of the time, at least in Congo, is not very good. There is very little access to modern infrastructure. There is almost zero support from the government. Indeed, this is something that I still think that I could try to contribute to say, well, if you as a government want to do something good for education, obviously, you have to start with all levels of education. But if you’re interested in higher education and research funds, then the money is there. Clearly, it’s a rich country, Congo. Morocco, for instance, also is very rich. They are doing better in that sense. They are able to fund their own project and research Institute. Congo doesn’t do that. I mean, that’s another aspect to it. I mentioned also, it has to do with the first visibility aspect, the fact that language is difficult, logistics, traveling is difficult. If you want to go to Congo now, you still have to have a visa, right? I mean, it takes you a month and you have to have an invitation letter to go there. And it makes that, in fact, when you are on the campus of this huge University of Kinshasa, you are one of the only foreigners because it is a bit of a close academic environment. And that’s something that doesn’t work well, if you want to progress in science. And a colleague of mine there said that the new Rector of the University of Kinshasa has been working a bit with him. He’s a neurologist and he’s very well aware that this is a big issue. I think this is something also we’d like to try to contribute to in the future. 

Well, did you discuss with them how you can meaningfully contribute and kind of have to ease the burdens or lift the barriers a little bit or a meaningful approach we could take in establishing partnerships with researchers in Congo, Kenya?

Hugues: I think there are a lot of meaningful approaches. Meaningful is a good word. I mean, obviously the other way to describe it would be efficiency. In fact, I’m not sure that I can really be efficient at the higher level. Now, it’s a bit different. I’m in a position where I can most likely guide influence project at a higher level. Currently at the University of Bern, we are part of an association of different universities in Europe. It’s called the Guilds of European Universities. And there is really an idea or a possibility, a project to interact with African Universities so that we can, for instance, help to create the so-called clusters of excellence in different African universities. So that would be meaningful at a higher level with big funding. And I’m looking forward to being able to contribute at that level. But in fact, at the end, I’m more interested to have small contributions with direct colleagues and again, younger or more senior colleagues. And one of my ways to do it is just to be with them in constant contact. I mean, sometimes spending my weekends and my nights to be in WhatsApp conversations with them, trying to say, well, have you seen this funding opportunity? Have you seen these PhD positions there? I mean, I’ll try to help you to write a motivation letter. I will write a support letter.

That’s where I find at this stage still a lot of reward. 

Jo: Yeah. Also, direct support is very much efficient.

Hugues: In that sense. Yes.  It can be seen as a small thing. Right. If you want to be, let’s call it ambitious, in the sense that you want to see it big. That’s not it. But this is big and ambitious for that person somehow. That’s maybe enough. 

Jo: Yeah. And that person might then be able to grow into a position to have a bigger impact on other people. 

Hugues: Yes. 

Jo: That might cause a ripple effect. When it comes to funding, there are many funding opportunities and they are all scattered all around. I just want to mention there’s something in the making, like funding opportunities for African researchers by a friend and colleague of mine. Yeah. Just a matter of probably weeks or months, and hopefully this year we’ll be able to release it. So I will certainly let you know once there is a kind of more central database central point to curate many of the available funding opportunities. It’s similar to research output. That’s what I discovered with Africarchive that our mission is to make African research output discoverable because what you hear often from different publishers and different also from our own experience and how much visibility African research has is very little same as Eastern Europe or other represented underfunded research communities. And our argument is not true. Much of the research is still in print. The continent is multilingual, not only four major language groups, but hundreds of languages and thousands. And also within the Western scholarly system and literature discovery systems, there are so many silos. So even for one person in the UK or in Switzerland or Germany like us to find literature that’s relevant and related to our work, most researchers rely on one or two sources, but there’s so much more to explore if you know where to check. So why am I saying this? Same with funding opportunities. So I think there’s a need to keep things decentralized in a way. I’m also a biologist and evolutionary focused biologist by training. So I love diversity. And I think diversity has a lot of meaning in many aspects of life. At the same time, it makes sense to have, like, few access points for information and resources and not to diversify in such a way that, I mean, nature, normally, even text, creates abundance for everyone. It only becomes difficult to manage when there is scarcity, which is nowadays caused by humans becoming philosophical or even political. But what I’m trying to say is similar to where we started the conversation, even with lingua franca presumably being English. And yet there’s so much more research in other languages. How can we make that count into what we consider as modern research if we don’t see it and we don’t make an effort to even realize it? How would we make an effort if we didn’t know there’s more to discover? And once being aware of it, what can we do to gain access, meaning, learning the languages or finding ways to translate? And for research funding, it’s also a matter of being aware, knowing where to look. Like you said, you’re pointing your colleagues to funding opportunities which might not be easily on their radar because they live in a different reality or a different environment where checking for online opportunities for funding is not necessarily the everyday task.

Hugues: I  do have a question for you. 

Jo: Yes, please.

Hugues: You know because you work with many new concepts of doing things that we think are going to be better for our communities and colleagues. Well, that’s our hope. The concern I have is how do we implement them? How do we spread them in our communities? Because we are in a somehow extremely conservative environment. I mean, as a biologist, evolutionary biologist, you also see the analogies. So why is an idea or a concept or something? Let’s say let’s take the concrete example that you just mentioned. Credit taxonomy. Right. This idea has been here for many years now. Maybe it’s formulated in a way with interesting tools, but still maybe in one academic environment they would understand and you think that we can apply it or we should apply it. So how can we more easily introduce some of this idea?

Because they are intrinsically so good, they would prevail one day and that we have to first put them on the table and just present them and apply them for ourselves and then maybe they are so good that everyone will apply them. 

Jo: Yeah, I see. I’ve also struggled for many years with the concept of open science because it’s now a new term, new rules supply new things to learn. And that’s always difficult because it needs, like if we look at physics, it needs an impulse energy which we don’t feel we have because we’re already overwhelmed with the things that are going on. And there’s so much pressure on the system. The way I now approach open science, or what is now commonly referred to as open science, is just good scientific practice. What does it matter to publish an impactful Journal or whatever the Journal claims has a high impact sector where all they measure is the citation rate within their own Journal, the same Journal from the previous year. I don’t know. That gets a weird measure and it was not meant to be a quality. It cannot be a quality measure, but it’s perceived as if. So we look at the impact factor and then many of the high impact factor journals are either very expensive to publish in open access or they’re closed access. So there’s a payroll and whoever wants to read has to pay and maybe not if you happen to work at a University who’s already paid a lot of money for the access, and if you happen to be a researcher in Congo, then your University might not have had the means to pay for that access. So then you can never read that article and what’s the point in publishing research results that can never see the light of the day. So that’s the way I approach it. I actually approach it and remind us of why we did become researchers. We want to accumulate and then disseminate knowledge for whatever is considered the greater good or to cure a disease. How can we do our part of the work to cure a disease? We understand the mechanism that caused the disease or that brings about a cure and then we publish that. And then I think it’s also the researcher’s responsibility to make sure to publish in a Journal that provides access to the target audience. And then for us also. Who is my target audience? Is it policy makers? Is it the pharmaceutical industry? Is it the patients, maybe all of them to varying degrees? But then I think, like we said in the beginning, there are different types of humans and amongst researchers I found there’s specialists and generalists and the generalists are more likely to see the bigger picture and also have an urge to want to have a purpose and also knowledge transfer with the work that we do and the specialists are more interested in the process and I want to understand and then accumulate the knowledge and then the rest is not so much the interest and that’s okay. So then for me as a trainer and consultant, the question is what type of researcher  are you and how can I help you in ensuring that or helping you to secure your career, to be able to continue research in whatever way you want and also for this research output to go to the next stage. This is, I think, where I want to see myself in the profession that I know for myself, like not being an active researcher anymore or more on the meter level. I still publish research articles, but more about infrastructure and due to the work that we do with Africarchive and research data or databases and analysis, but not in bioscience where I came from. And also I miss it very much. But I’m not so much a process oriented person. I’m more for conceptualizing and then analyzing results. To conduct the experiments was never my favorite game in research. That’s why I think it was also easy for me to leave, but I still miss it. Like you said, I missed academia. I missed whatever is considered research freedom or what we think it would be if there wasn’t so much pressure. But yeah, the liberty to be able to come up with research questions and then dig in and try to interrogate. I think there’s truly more freedom in that respect as compared to industry research because there’s a clear goal. We need to develop this product. How can we get there? So yeah, I don’t know if I answered your question because I want to answer it to myself.

Hugues: Someone also came to the same conclusion that by itself, if this is so good, because this is good practice, it has to come as a way that we do things. Again, as you said, you use the examples of impact factors and any smart person, you don’t have to be very smart. But try to understand this is completely bullshit to think that the quality of what you published depends on the impact factor.

Jo: That’s so sad that I don’t know about people. I think it’s a human trait that people are also like not all of us, but many of us are prestige oriented. 

Hugues: Yes. That’s why I came to that point when you were saying, well, there are two types of scientists, the generalist and the specialist. I would say at the same time, I see another one distinction, the egoist and the altruist. It’s not very nice for many of our colleagues that are still thinking that it’s more about themselves than the value of contributing to a community. 

Jo: Yeah. And I think many people. I like him and he is an author and he would argue is more religiously oriented, but it’s the same. I think we all have the traits in us, all of these. So it’s the question. But there’s also the spiritual saying that it depends on which Wolf you feed. They all live inside us and it’s a matter of being aware and then considering which one to foster which of these trades. And what’s more important, what are our values, what are my values? And the value system that I would mention is probably different from yours and yet we’re both community oriented and I think maybe for the egoist I wouldn’t say they are necessarily bad people. I think they’re more security oriented. For them, security is a value and they want to maybe provide for their families or maybe they are selfless in other ways and then prestigious, a way to have wealth and security which doesn’t help because the effect is still the same. We are trapped in a prestige oriented system currently. Interesting.

But I think at the end of the day the question is why did you become a researcher? And it might well be that, well, my parents were researchers so there was no question asked that I would also become an academic and of course medical surgeon because that’s where you earn more money. The other option was to study law and it’s for the money. If that’s what you want in life, then I guess that’s okay. The question is how much suffering can you tolerate along the way? Like where do we see our responsibilities and our impact? So I think the question with the impact factor can also be coined in other ways. Like what’s the societal impact of our research outcomes and wouldn’t that matter most and how can we measure it? Like what’s a better measure for impact for society? And is that even measurable? Because much research only materializes into any positive impact in medicine or other systems many years and sometimes decades later. 

Hugues: Yes. That’s why it’s impossible. I think that’s the cradle of basic science. Just fund it because you want to be curious and you want to create new knowledge and the impact is most of the time the wrong question at this stage. 

Jo: Yeah. And I also think the question maybe shouldn’t be asked because I think in Germany we learned the hard way that basic research is what drives economies. I think Germany got back on its feet after the war because of heavy investments and that’s also lacking in the African region by the Americans and the other allies, like lots of basic research which then fostered all the sectors in the society because that’s what drives economies, isn’t it? I don’t know. That’s what I heard.

Hugues: It is something that is sad. I think it’s a bit more complex than this though. 

Jo: No. In Africa, just to finish this part for a moment because there’s hardly any basic research across the continent from what I’ve seen for sure in SubSaharan Africa. And then the argument is we need more applied research, but what does it have? The funding is mostly and almost only available for Western and US supplied research. But Western donors think Africans should study or they study and let Africans participate because they don’t have the means to do that.

But if African researchers could decide what they want to study, it would surely be a lot of docking onto Indigenous knowledge because the knowledge is already there. And then to bring that into academia from an African approach and an African perspective, I think would certainly serve African economies better because that’s also an ownership question. 

Hugues: Yeah. Even though the way I’ve seen it or I interpret it sometimes by interacting with my colleagues is that curiosity about the basic working of the world and the basic question that you may have, we all have the same. It’s obviously culturally somehow influenced because it depends on your environment for sure. But the basic laws of physics and physiology and complexity of the human body are about the same. And many of these colleagues, they are just as curious as we are. And if they would have the funding that we have, they would just ask most likely the same question we have. 

Jo: Yeah.

Hugues: And this is why I learned early not to impose any questions from my site. As you mentioned, you cannot say, well, because I come with maybe funding or money. I say, well, you have to study this because this is going to be good for you. It is so disrespectful for our colleagues as scientists to impose what they have, what is their own curiosity.

Jo: At the same time, like you said, in the beginning, they have their own observations which help their people. And then having said that, studying molecules and substances that come to work for us took decades to develop and now they’re just being exported into the other region where they might have. There’s also the saying that for every disease, there’s a plant, like a herbal medicine. But these are very region specific. So for the African what we commonly refer to as tropical diseases, I mean, they also exist in other global south regions that’s surely a cure that’s locally bred, like local herbs. Regional herbs.

Wouldn’t they know best where to start doing the research? 

Hugues: Yeah, sure, I agree.

Jo: Okay. To maybe close on a positive scenario or not that we talked a lot about. I think it was also not only negative talk or talking about the challenges a little bit. Yes. And disparities exist and we acknowledge history happened, the approach we often take with Africarchive, and I see that also reflected in the way you argue. Let’s look for it like what can we do today? Let’s foster collaborations like see what we can learn from each other. How can we move on from here? It’s really happened. We cannot send back the wheel of time. Sure. Basically what’s your plan moving forward? Are you going back to Africa? 

Hugues: Yes. Well, my plan: I started concrete collaborations with both universities, Kinshasa and Fairs, and I have currently the first student from University of Fairs who is working in a lab in Bern. She started a few days ago. And the idea is to get enough funding so that these collaborations could continue. But at a higher level. I don’t want to brag, but now since early January, I’m the vice Rector for research here at Universal Bern. And it gives me a bit more power to do things at a higher level. And there is an opportunity of possibilities. And it’s clear that the EU Europe sees now that there is a need, a potential to do something different with the African continent, work more as partners say, what are your needs? What are our needs? Where can I win? Where could you win if we work together on something? And obviously funding, big funding is important. And this idea to maybe help create clusters of excellence on the African continent for scientists, for researchers, for specific questions. And for me, the two questions I would be most interested in contributing to are genomics in medicine and rare disease in Africa. And if we could move forward to have something like this working on the continent, both are already quite well advanced. There are groups in South Africa, in North Africa, also a few groups in Ronda, Tanzania, Kenya, I’m sure working on these things. 

Jo: I  have an acquaintance in Ghana, who’s running a Bioscience genetics lab. 

Hugues: Yes. And there are also privates. In Nigeria, there is a genetics company that I think is called 54. It’s not 23 and me, but I think it’s like 54 and me and they do next generation sequencing and there is a momentum. There is a lot to be done on those topics there. And that’s where I’d like you to be able to contribute. 

Jo: Yeah. It’s great to hear and also that there’s concrete plans ahead in fostering these excellent clusters or research discipline specific clusters, which I think in the past summer, which existed, there used to be a chemistry association which can certainly be revived. And I think also what we see in Europe working well in the United States and North America generally, I think Latin America to foster these research communities to enable Intercontinental and also international like entire continental collaboration. And that’s also what we at Africarchive have started to showcase the opportunities that exist for African researchers to network, to engage and globally inclusive collaboration activities. Happy to stay in touch on these advancements. And I’m sure we hear more from each other. And also we should also mention the podcast that you produced with your colleagues in both countries during your sabbatical. It’s in French, but I’m sure there’s many listeners who are capable of the language. Do you want to maybe say a few sentences around the conversation? 

Hugues: Yes, I think general communication makes us somehow humans. Journalism is very important. I mean, I have this idea. I just wanted to make an experiment, my own experiments with interviewing colleagues as you are doing and the format I use were like ten minutes podcast interviews, of the people I have been interacting with in Morocco, Fairs in Kinshasa and it was really a fun experience because that’s not only the ten minutes that you are spending with the clicks, but you have to think about the thing ahead. So preproduction, then recording and then post production and there was help from my friend Patricia who worked with me on that. It was fun and I don’t know, maybe I’ll start again one day. 

Jo: Yeah. It’s also something that I discovered for myself, maybe also through your influence that the podcast format is really like I wouldn’t have expected it to be so much fun, also so much work, as you mentioned, but it’s a very engaging way to communicate about research affairs. Hugues: Yes. 

Jo: Any direction that’s important to us that we want to talk about and let others participate in us and right to the conversation. So whoever felt inspired or heard whatever we said here, feel free to reach out and keep the conversation going. Thank you so much for joining. It’s always a pleasure to connect. 

Hugues: Yeah. Good luck with your product. I admire you. 

Jo: Thank you. Bye. 

Hugues: See you. Bye.

References (related research articles)

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