Columbia | SIPA
In a best possible scenario, in an ideal world, we would have science to help inform global policy questions - instead of just throwing darts on the board.

Geoffrey Johnston, PhD candidate in SIPA’s Sustainable Development program.

Geoffrey Johnston’s research focus is malaria, especially malaria drug resistance.

"There is only one drug now, and people are worried the parasite will become resistant," explained Johnston.

The World Bank and the Global Fund give subsidies to provide drugs at a low cost. But that creates a dilemma, which lies at the heart of Johnston’s research.

"If you provide drugs for cheap, resistance will spread. If you don’t, people can’t afford it, and people will die," he said.

"Public policy issues are the balance: how much should the subsidies be? What is the right level?"

To help answer these questions, Johnston is trying to understand the biology of the parasite and its transmission, working closely with lab biologist David Fidock from Columbia’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology and epidemiologist David Smith from Johns Hopkins University. He has published a paper with each scientist:

"There is a push right now for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary work," he noted. "What’s common is that, in a team, you’ll have people with different skills to bring to the table."

Professors Scott Barrett and Jeffrey Sachs sit on Johnston’s thesis committee, so he receives regular feedback based on their on-the-ground experience.

Johnston hopes his research, along with that of his peers in the PhD program, will make a difference and inform policy makers.

When it comes to policy surrounding malaria, he elaborates on a decision by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that eradication of malaria is the goal of its global health program:

"If we eradicate malaria, it will be like landing on the moon.

We’ve only eradicated polio, and we had a very efficacious vaccine then. We don’t have a vaccine for malaria. We have one drug - and a spray and bed nets.

People are asking us, with those tools, how far can we go?

It becomes a question of how much you want to spend. Are we diverting too much to just one of the maladies in the developing world? Are malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS taking up too much of the pie in international aid funding…? Should we fund capacity building instead?”

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered before the right policies are created, according to Johnston. That’s where he hopes the science behind global development issues will come in to play.

That’s essentially what the program tries to do: take an analytical approach to policy issues and get the best scientific background and research on the topic, bringing a scientific skill set to a problem of global import.”

Instead of just throwing darts on the board.

- Michelle Chahine