There is no word for "research" in Swahili. I am in Kilifi at a meeting of the governors of the Wellcome Trust to see the work we fund in the second-poorest district of Kenya. In the malnutrition ward at Kilifi District Hospital, it is quiet compared with a paediatric ward in the UK. The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) team has devised an innovative play area for malnourished children and their prematurely aged mothers, in which parents are taught to make toys using discarded corn husks and bottle tops. But still they sit in silence, the children chronically deprived of stimulation. The mortality among these children is about 25 per cent in hospital, in spite of dedicated care by the nurses and doctors.
The hospital looks after a population of 250,000 people. The Kemri team visits each household in this rural district three times a year and holds demographic and health records. It is possible now to track the malnourished children once they leave hospital. The sad answer is that a further 25 per cent die during the next six months. On a more positive note, the team, working with the Kenyan government, is having a major impact on the control of malaria, using insecticide-impregnated bed nets, new artemisinin-based combination drug therapy and control of the Anopheles mosquito that transmits the disease.
We are struck by the respect the team wins as it works with local people, gaining permission for, and explaining, the research it conducts. The work is monitored by a national ethics committee. Consent is obtained from village committees and individuals participating in the research.
Back in the UK, "research" might as well be a word in Swahili. There is a frustratingly low level of understanding of what research can offer to improve public policy, education and health. I am in trouble with some of the educational establishment for daring to suggest in a Times interview that some controlled experiments might be in order to evaluate different approaches to teaching. Our most precious human resource is our children - but for generations we have been subjecting their education to ideology rather than evidence.
The media are also in hot pursuit of the major NHS IT programme "Connecting for Health". Large government information technology programmes are fair game in terms of their expense and their short-term ability to deliver. However, the media coverage fails to see that the NHS has a unique opportunity to use IT to improve patient safety and the nation's health. We all want safe drugs. What better opportunity than to use the medical records of our population of over 60 million to identify the less common side-effects and unpredictable interactions of drugs as they are introduced? Rare events can never be safely excluded by the best-conducted clinical trials that precede the introduction of new drugs. Modern IT can offer doctors expert systems to guide treatment and provide assurance that the performance of each doctor is comparable with peer standards. We seem obsessed with privacy issues with respect to research that could transform public services. At the same time we post our intimate personal details on the internet on "social networking" sites, while telling banks, phone companies and supermarkets every detail of our spending, our movements and our eating and drinking habits.
To Berlin, to a panel discussion at the inauguration of the European Research Council. The ERC could be a miracle of the EU - it has agreed to run a European funding agency that will make its awards solely on the basis of excellence. The ERC has the opportunity to raise the level of scholarship across Europe, by making universities compete for the best young researchers and to signal to individual nations those academic disciplines in which they are competitive and those in which they are not.
It will be interesting to see the reaction of politicians after the outcome of the first few rounds of funding. Is it too much to hope that politicians might understand the meaning of the word research?
Mark Walport is director of the Wellcome Trust