African Hub Set Up to Boost Research Autonomy

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

African scientists look set to gain greater control over research in their own countries, if an ambitious plan for a regional hub to award grants and develop research capacity bears fruit.

Three international funding bodies are giving seed cash of around US$4.5 million to establish the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). The London-based biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust also hopes to transfer the management of millions of dollars in its research funds to the alliance. AESA’s other two backers are the UK Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The idea is that AESA will be a platform for managing Africa-focused research programmes and a think tank to direct the continent’s science.

“Science can and will transform Africa. But to get there, we must train critical numbers of excellent scientists in all corners of Africa. That is the mission of AESA,” says Tom Kariuki, a Kenyan immunologist who was appointed as the alliance’s director in March. It is due to be launched in June by African heads of state, and will operate out of the headquarters of the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi.

Remote control

For decades, African science capacity and research output have lagged behind those of the rest of the world. But they are now taking off in fields with clear impacts on African development, such as health and agriculture, in nations including Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria (see Nature 474,556–559; 2011). One problem is that overseas funders still supply a large chunk of the research cash and decide where and how it is spent.

“Much of the research done in Africa is still predominately financed by global funders from Western Europe and the United States, and still managed from Western capitals from funders’ head offices,” says Kariuki (see ‘Funding from abroad’). That has limited the impact of such research, in part because it matches priorities set outside Africa. Funding is in short supply for studying neglected tropical diseases, for example, and funding for HIV research is not always directed at the countries in the greatest need. African researchers can also struggle to keep teams together once overseas grants run out.

“It’s weird that for 40 years, the agenda-setting and the funding decisions for research in Africa has been done from London, Seattle, Geneva or wherever,” agrees Kevin Marsh, a clinical epi­demiologist at the University of Oxford, UK, and a senior adviser on the AESA initiative.

Source: Nature (link opens in a new window)

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