Published online 1 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.607

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Funding boost for African science

Wellcome Trust grants £30 million to help build research capacity.

African scientistAfrican scientists could benefit from a Wellcome funding boost.Punchstock

The Wellcome Trust, the largest charity in the United Kingdom, has pledged £30 million (US$50 million) to support health research at more than 50 African institutions.

The charity unveiled the grant package on 2 July. The money will be channelled through seven new international and pan-African consortia, each led by an African research institution, and spread across 18 countries on the continent.

It will be used to revamp laboratories, to train laboratory personnel and to fund grants. The trust hopes that the consortia will develop into thriving research communities that benefit public health by methods such as reducing infectious diseases and improving sanitation. Better-equipped labs and improved career prospects for researchers should also help to stem the brain drain of Africa's most able scientists.

"It is essential that the best and brightest researchers have access to training opportunities and career pathways in their home countries," says Mark Walport, director of the trust. "There is no use training excellent researchers in Africa unless a first class environment is also available in which they can develop their careers and pursue their research."

There are already many programmes that target higher education and research in Africa. Between 2000 and 2008, the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, financed by American charitable organizations, put $337 million into research and education initiatives in nine African countries.

And the Nelson Mandela Institute in East London, South Africa, is spearheading an effort to raise $5 billion to establish centres of excellence in science and technology across sub-Saharan Africa. The first such institution, the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja, Nigeria, opened its doors in 2008, and there are plans to create centres in Burkina Faso, Tanzania and South Africa.

Donor dependence

"There are other collaborations and networks, but the lack of research capacity is a huge problem and it's going to take more than one initiative to achieve this," says Jimmy Whitworth, head of international activities at the Wellcome Trust.

Africa mapSee a "larger map":[box 1] of the consortia funded by the Wellcome Trust.Wellcome Trust Publishing Dept.

Damtew Teferra, the Africa and Middle East director of the Ford Foundation's International Fellowship Program, based in New York, points out that African research is still heavily dependant on external funding of this kind. "In most African countries, the amount of money put aside for research is peanuts; 70-80% of research depends on external donors," he says.

One of the consortia receiving Wellcome Trust funding, the Research Institute for Infectious Diseases of Poverty (IIDP), involves six African institutions, and particularly focuses on malaria. Researchers and students should benefit because each of the partner institutions has different areas of expertise, says Margaret Gyapong, director of the Dodowa Health Research Centre in Ghana and chair of the consortium. "The University of Bamako in Mali specializes in genome research and lab work, and here in Ghana we focus on social science and field-based work," she says.

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But more partners means that each institution receives a smaller portion of the funding. Most of the roughly $2 million allotted to Gyapong's consortium will be used to fund PhDs and postdoctoral training.

Gyapong says The Wellcome Trust grant is a good start, but even more funding will be needed to make her research network competitive. For example, "we had to cut our plan for IT support", she says. "And currently I am sitting here with no internet access." 

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