Innogen · Research · Current projects
Ethical Legal Aspects of Biotechnology in Sub-Saharan Africa

Joanna Chataway

Affiliated staff:   Simon Outram   Norman Clark

Funding: British Council

Started: January 1 2002


It is apparent in Africa, as elsewhere, that controversy over genetics and associated biotechnologies is raging, and has become the focus for a wide range of socio-economic concerns including: increasing global inequality, mistrust of multi-national companies, democratic representativeness in public institutions, as well as more directly connected concerns about the unknown impacts of genetic engineering on the environment and health.

The project sought to highlight these issues as they emerged from discussions with scientists, science journalists, and multi-disciplinarians from various fields of research.

It is argued that such is discussion is primarily held between a few expert and seldom communicated outside of academia. The project also sought to explore the barriers against, and opportunities for, multi-disciplinary science communication.

Finally the project sought to examine whether scientists are communicating outside of academia through the media.

Above all, the argument is that in order for genetics and biotechnology to be successfully integrated into the economies of sub-Saharan Africa, it will require a sustained effort to maximise the ability of experts to communicate with each other and with the wider public, and in turn, to integrate this knowledge with existing public knowledge, perceptions, and demands for this new science and technology to meet Africa’s most urgent needs.

Aims and objectives

Empirical research sought to address the following questions:

  • What is the substance and form of the ELSI discussion over genetics and biotechnology, as it specifically relates to sub-Saharan Africa?
  • Are questions about genetics and biotechnology being discussed through inter-disciplinary platforms?
  • Are questions about genetics and biotechnology being discussed between academia and the media?
  • How can improvements be made regarding communications – what practical and/or policy improvements are suggested by those closest to such discussion?

Research methods

In line with the aims and objectives of the project, interviews were undertaken with key personnel from Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa based upon a semi-structured interview schedule exploring:

  • The socio-economic implications of genetics and biotechnology
  • The experiences and opinions concerning inter-disciplinary discussion of genetics and biotechnology
  • The experiences and opinions of communication between scientists and science journalists

Key findings

The African debate over genetics and biotechnology has become dominated by European concerns over GM technology. Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary discussion is not encouraged by the funding and organisational structure of African universities.

Scientists and science journalists often misunderstand and mistrust each other. A large number of media articles on genetics and biotechnology do not get completed as African scientists frequently do not talk to local science journalists.

Wider implications for policy

Policy development with respect to genetics and biotechnology regulation needs to focus upon local context, rather than policy-choices based the relative food-secure and low-health burden context of the North.

Interviewees included geneticists, social scientists, specialists in science communication, educational specialists, and multi-disciplinarians.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face, on the telephone, and via online chat/messaging.

In addition, a two-day workshop was held at the University of Cape Town to discuss the issues raised during interviews.

In particular, the workshop attendees focused attention on how to open up communication channels between academic experts and science journalists.

In seeking to analyse both the interviews and main recommendations from the workshop; primary data from interviews was discussed in relation to the literature on science and technology innovation (especially in Africa), science communication, and more generally the sociology of scientific knowledge.

Project update

Website being launched early 2009.

Further information

Project Undertaken by Innogen and the Africa Genome Education Institute, South Africa.