I worked for an NGO in Zimbabwe for about five years, on biotechnology projects involving small-scale farmers, before taking up a research studentship at the OU in 2005. My motivation came from encountering the GM (Genetically Modified) food debate and trying to understand how emerging technologies are regulated – especially for the benefit of the poor end-users: small scale farmers and consumers.
I originally wanted to study part-time while continuing to work, but I realised I needed to not be so closely involved in this field – in order to see the issues from the outside and gain a fresh perspective.
I had a number of options in other places in the UK and elsewhere, but I came to The Open University to do my PhD because it was offering the best in terms of the research I wanted to pursue, as well as providing the flexibility I needed. My family has also enjoyed being in Milton Keynes!
Biotechnology is a big issue in southern Africa. There’s a whole range of issues around it including: food safety, the environment and corporate control of systems. Therefore there’s a lot of debate around how countries should proceed in terms of regulating this technology, so that people can feel safe and make informed choices about products of the technology.
In my PhD I looked at how countries in southern Africa are trying to harmonise their regulatory systems at a regional level. The claim was this would make it easier for individual countries to develop their own regulations. My inquiry was into why this had not been happening to the extent that people had expected.
I finished my PhD in 2008 and I did a year post-doctoral assignment at the OU on an internally funded fellowship. Then I submitted a proposal to the Leverhulme Trust and got funding for a two-year Research Fellowship.
What I’m researching, and what most people are doing in my department, Development Policy and Practice (DPP), is much larger than one discipline can handle, and needs input from people in different disciplines. There is a large team within DPP, which is itself within the Mathematics, Computing and Technology Faculty. The cross-fertilisation of interdisciplinary ideas and perspectives is very useful. And it reflects reality – in the real world, people don’t work in their different silos.
Conversing with these different people has given me a lot of confidence in terms of interacting with the people out there who we are trying to influence: policymakers, end users and people in other academic institutions.
We are starting to influence policy in this area – having written policy papers for the African Union and for a number of different organisations there. In the UK, some of us, including myself, have been to the Houses of Parliament to give a presentation on policy and development issues.
I am glad that through the OU I’ve been able to get this opportunity, particularly the chance to cross different disciplines.
Julius Mugwagwa, Zimbabwe. PhD: Crossnational Technology Regulation in Africa