African high-speed data network open to researchers

A high-speed network that allows faster data transmission both among researchers in southern and eastern Africa and with scientists in Europe and other parts of the world has been launched.

The UbuntuNet network, unveiled in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, last month, builds on links initially established between Europe and five African countries by the UbuntuNet Alliance, the regional research and education network for eastern and southern Africa. The network provides a high-speed Internet connection between national research and education networks (NRENs) in the region and with the pan-European GÉANT network, giving access to 40 million users in 8,000 institutions.
It was developed under the AfricaConnect programme, which aims to provide researchers across Africa with access to faster data transmission facilities to encourage global research collaboration. The European Commission provides 80 per cent of the programme’s funding, with the rest coming from African governments out of their support for the NRENs. European funding for AfricaConnect is due to last until 2015, after which the project is intended to be solely funded by its African partners.

Speaking last week at the 2012 Africa-European Union Cooperation Forum on ICT, held in Lisbon, Portugal, UbuntuNet Alliance project officer Tiwonge Msulira Banda said that African scientists in fields such as agriculture, management of natural resources, climate change and earth observation, will benefit from access to a world-class data transmission network. “In all of these fields, UbuntuNet will open up opportunities for African researchers to get engaged in cutting-edge research at a global level,” he said. One research area that was already benefiting from high-speed access, he added, was genomics, where the high-speed links are being used to exchange data between researchers in Malawi and Kenya and the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Banda said that UbuntuNet could even allow more Africans to become involved in particle physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).

Cathrin Stöver, chief international relations and communications manager of DANTE, the organisation that operates GÉANT and is coordinating AfricaConnect, emphasised that, although most of the initial funds were coming from Europe, “we will only do things that are agreed as beneficial by the African partners”.
She added that AfricaConnect is also committed to establishing close ties with regional research networks in west and central Africa.

Francis Tusubira, chief executive officer of the UbuntuNet Alliance, said that the organisation’s goal was to ensure that all countries in southern and eastern Africa had viable NRENs connected to the UbuntuNet network. But he added that it was a major challenge to build the capacity to run the national networks effectively, partly because of the lack of graduates with relevant computer skills being produced by universities.
“We have thousands of engineering students coming out of universities, but put them in a working environment [involving computers] and they have no idea what to do,” he said.

Therefore one priority for the UbuntuNet Alliance under the AfricaConnect project is to establish programmes to boost the teaching of computer engineering skills in African universities over the next four years. There was also a need to persuade African politicians of NRENs’ value so that they provide the funding required for their long-term operation, Tusubira said.

Tusubira announced that he had already received commitments of 60 per cent of the total African contributions required by the AfricaConnect project up to 2015, and that 40 per cent of this money had already been received.

Story by  David Dickson  SciDev.Net, 04 December 2012

Séralini et al. study conclusions not supported by data, says EU risk assessment community

Serious defects in the design and methodology of a paper by Séralini et al. mean it does not meet acceptable scientific standards and there is no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of genetically modified maize NK603. These are the conclusions of separate and independent assessments carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and six EU Member States following publication of the paper in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology on 19 September 2012.

EFSA today delivered its final evaluation of the paper by Séralini et al. pharmacy rewards & more which raised concerns about the potential toxicity of genetically modified (GM) maize NK603 and of a herbicide containing glyphosate. In particular, it suggested a link between exposure to these substances and an increased incidence of tumours in rats.

The Authority’s final review reaffirmed its initial assessment that the authors’ conclusions cannot be regarded as scientifically sound because of inadequacies in the design, reporting and analysis of the study as outlined in the paper. Consequently, it is not possible to draw valid conclusions about the occurrence of tumours in the rats tested. Based on the information published by Séralini et al., EFSA finds there is no need to re-examine its previous safety evaluations of NK603 or to consider these findings in the ongoing assessment of glyphosate.

Per Bergman, who led EFSA’s work, said: “EFSA’s analysis has shown that deficiencies in the Séralini et al. paper mean it is of insufficient scientific quality for risk assessment. In addition, several national organisations were independently mandated by Member States to assess this study. These reviews have demonstrated a consensus among  a significant part of the EU risk assessment community that the conclusions of Séralini et al. are not supported by the data in the published paper. We believe the completion of this evaluation process has brought clarity to the issue.”

Broad consensus

EFSA’s final statement considered the independent assessments of the paper by organisations of six EU Member States: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Full copies of these evaluations can be found in the annex of EFSA’s statement.

EFSA noted the emergence of a broad European consensus, with the reviewed Member State assessments finding the conclusions of Séralini et al. were not supported by the data presented in the study. Four of the national evaluations found the paper did not provide scientific information that would indicate the necessity to reopen the risk assessment of NK603 or glyphosate. The exceptions were France’s High Council of Biotechnology and  Italy, whose assessments did not examine this issue.

Member States also identified many of the same weaknesses in the methodology and design of the paper as raised by EFSA. Unclear study objectives, the low number of rats used in each treatment group, a lack of detail on the feed and treatment formulation, key information missing on the statistical methods employed and incomplete endpoint reporting were all highlighted by Member State organisations.

Inadequate sample size

In the course of the review process, EFSA had requested Séralini et al.  to provide further information on their study documentation. No such material had reached the Authority before publication of this statement. However, on 9 November 2012, Séralini et al. published a general reply to the reactions from across the globe to their paper. After carefully examining the publication, EFSA concluded it provided only a limited amount of relevant information which failed to address the majority of the outstanding questions raised in the Authority’s first statement.

In their ‘Answer to critics’ document, Séralini et al. stated the sample size of their treatment groups was too small to allow them to draw conclusions with regard to long-term carcinogenicity and mortality. EFSA noted this acknowledgement from the authors is inconsistent with the overall conclusions they made in the paper regarding the tumours and mortality.

EFSA’s evaluation of the Séralini et al. article was in keeping with its mission to review all relevant scientific literature for GMO risk assessment. The Authority remains committed to monitoring relevant literature on an ongoing basis to ensure the advice it provides is up to date.