Bid for better world starts here

March 9, 2007

Bloomsbury Centre pools diverse talent to tackle key global issues, write Chloe Stothart and Jessica Shephard.

More than 200 academics, from geographers to vets, will unite to tackle some of the Third World's most pressing problems when a research centre for international development opens in London in spring.

The Bloomsbury Centre will bring together specialists in drug development, medicine, geography, macroeconomics, education policy and animal health, from several institutions.

The centre is being seen as a model for collaboration between scholars from usually quite separate disciplines, to promote joined-up thinking and tackle some of the world's biggest issues.

The centre will be the most interdisciplinary institute for international development in the UK and the second of its kind in the world. Only Columbia University's Earth Institute in the US is thought to bring together so many subjects to address the problems of the poorest nations.

Staff in the centre will look at the relationship between human and animal health, the most effective ways of delivering global aid, mapping global disease and how to increase the benefits of pharmaceutical policies.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is overseeing the creation of the centre. Sir Andrew Haines, the director of the LSHTM, believes that academics have until now taken too narrow a view of international development.

He said: "I believe international development has been seen as a rather specialist area. It is often seen as something within the social sciences or macroeconomics fields. This centre will bring it into the mainstream and involve academics who have not considered their work to have links with development issues."

The centre has been promised funds of £3.7 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, but Sir Andrew said he expected that the centre would bring in enough research income to fund itself within five years.

"International development is moving up the national and international political agenda. There was the G8 Summit and increases in funding for research from the Department for International Development and trusts such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, so we felt there were opportunities that had not been there a few years ago," he said.

The centre's staff will primarily come from Birkbeck, University of London; the Institute of Education; the LSHTM; the Royal Veterinary College; the School of Oriental and African Studies; and the School of Pharmacy. Sir Andrew said there were negotiations with a "quite a major research group"

about joining the centre, and more people from outside the six founding colleges were likely to join later.

One academic whose research group is to join the centre said it would offer exciting new research opportunities. Angela Little, professor of education and international development at the Institute of Education, said: "The centre will enable us to address issues at the interfaces of our subjects where we think there has not been the opportunity to do so before. It is possible to become isolated from the general knowledge of what is going on in other institutes, and the centre expands the possibilities for collaboration."

She added: "By bringing the Royal Veterinary College alongside the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Institute of Education, we can begin to ask questions about the implications of education not just on human but also on animal health. Animal health is essential to the livelihood of poor people, because if they lose their livelihoods they lose the opportunity to access education and healthcare. All this has implications for global achievement of the Millennium Development Goals."

Professor Little also plans to look at the impact of gender on healthcare and education, which so far had been explored separately, to see whether girls' education was compromised if they lost out on healthcare.

She said the centre could influence international policymakers by showing the connections between issues that were often handled separately. She said: "Policymaking and resources at a global level for education, health and economic development have become separated. This is understandable from the point of view of the organisations, but for people living in poverty it is vital that we open the lines of communication to enable people with power and resources to think about these issues in interconnected ways."

The centre launched ten PhD studentships and is to have another round next year. It will also run masters degrees and short courses for international development professionals.

Professor Little hopes that the centre might help to develop joined-up thinking about development in the next generation of policymakers and practitioners.

About 100 academics will move into the centre's new building in May, and it will open formally in autumn.

More than 100 staff will stay in their college buildings but will become part of the centre, including Professor Little's ten-strong team. The centre will appoint a director, after an international search, later this month. An associate director is likely to be chosen from staff of the six founding colleges.

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