An article in The Conversation, a daily email news service, reported that figures collated by the World Bank in 2014 show that Africa – home to around 16% of the world’s population – produces less than 1% of the world’s research output. But there are several projects and initiatives that offer hope amid all the bad news.
One is a major funding and agenda-setting platform, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa based in Nairobi, Kenya, which was established by the African Academy of Sciences in partnership with NEPAD. It will award research grants to African universities, advise on financial best practice and develop a science strategy for Africa. It also offers an opportunity for African scientists to speak with one voice when it comes to aligning a research and development agenda for African countries.
Another is the US’s National Institute of Health and Wellcome Trust’s commitment to invest nearly US$200 million into Africa-led genomics projects, biobanks and training of bioinformatics personnel. This investment targets diseases that affect the African continent and gives African scientists the opportunity to set priorities with regard to health interventions and skills development.
The continent currently has only 198 researchers per million people. That’s compared to 455 per million in Chile, and more than 4,500 per million in the UK and the US. If it’s to match the world average for the number of researchers per million people – around 1,150 – the continent needs another million new PhDs.
Political will is desperately needed to achieve that goal. It is sorely lacking in most African countries. In 2006, members of the African Union endorsed a target for each nation to spend 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on research and development. Yet as of 2017 only three countries – South Africa, Malawi and Uganda – have reached this goal.
And while more African authors are producing research and being published in international journals, a great deal of this work is being conducted in collaboration with international partners.
The vital role of international partnerships in driving innovation in Africa is unquestionable. But at the same time, the dependence on international collaboration and investment without any pan-African framework for increasing and sustaining local funding, limits Africa’s ability to drive a scientific agenda that is aligned to its specific needs.
That’s why African-led initiatives like the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, Human, Heredity and Health in Africa Programme and the Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium – through which genomics programmes on the continent are being funded – are so important.
This short-term thinking also means that brilliant African thinkers and scientists are lost to the continent. And there is no doubt that retaining such scientists makes a difference. Take the case of Professor Abdoulaye Djimde. The continent needs more like him.
Djimde, one of my collaborators, is chief of the Molecular Epidemiology and Drug Resistance Unit at the Malaria Research and Training Centre University of Bamako, Mali. He returned to Mali in 2001 after completing his PhD in genetics in the US.
Over a period of 17 years, he has rolled out a research development strategy that attracted millions of dollars in investment to build infrastructure in his home country. He’s also obtained funding to develop the next generation of African scientists through the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa programme. The continent needs to keep more of its Professor Djimdes at home if it’s to keep growing.
Alan Christoffels is DST/NRF Research Chair in Bioinformatics and Public Health Genomics, University of the Western Cape.