Experimenting with co-development: a qualitative study of gene drive research for malaria control in Mali

S. Hartley, K. Ledingham, R. Owen, S. Leonelli, S. Diarra and S. Diop,  Social Science and Medicine,  2021.

We investigate how technology ‘co-development’ (between researchers, stakeholders and local communities) is framed in practice by those developing gene drive mosquitos for malaria eradication. Our case study focuses on UK and Mali-based researchers planning to undertake the first field trials in Mali of gene drive mosquitos for malaria control. While they and the wider gene drive research community are explicitly committed to the principle of co-development, how this is framed and practiced is not clear. Through qualitative analysis of 34 interviews complemented by observation and documentary research conducted in 2018, we identify and compare ten framings of co-development mobilised by UK and Malian researchers and stakeholders. For Malians, co-development reflected Mali’s broader socio-political context and a desire for African scientific independence and leadership. It was mobilised to secure community and stakeholder support for gene drive mosquito field trials, through outreach, building local scientific capacity and developing those institutions (e.g. regulatory) necessary for field trials to go ahead. For UK participants, co-development was also concerned with scientific capacity-building, knowledge exchange between researchers, and stakeholder and community outreach to secure consent for field trials. Overall, our findings suggest co-development is opening up previously expert-dominated spaces as researchers attempt to take responsibility for the societal implications of their work. However, its main function is as a project management tool to enable and instrumentally support technological development, field trials and eventual deployment. This function extends into areas which are traditionally the responsibility of the state, such as regulatory development, facilitated by Mali’s fragile political and economic situation. Paradoxically, co-development simultaneously depoliticises gene drive, masking power relations and closing down substantive debate and agency. Characterised by extreme poverty, conflict and weak institutions, Mali may become a site for technological experimentation where there is little interrogation of gene drive or its governance.

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