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African hub set up to boost research autonomy

Fledgling alliance will manage international grants and develop science strategy.

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Sven Torfinn

Tom Kariuki will head a funding platform for African research that is due to be launched in June.

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.

SOURCE: NEPAD

“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.

Instead, AESA will invite funders both on and outside the continent to delegate the peer-review and grant management of their African programmes to the alliance. The idea is to shift the centre of gravity for African funding decisions to the continent, says Simon Kay, head of international operations at the Wellcome Trust. AESA wants to create more buy-in from African governments on the research being done, Kay adds.

Money management

As a start, the Wellcome Trust is considering handing over the management of its five-year, £40-million (US$60-million) Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science initiative to AESA later this year. This programme, launched last September, aims to build up research capacity and train leaders who can drive regional agendas, by awarding competitive grants, initially in health research. It expects to announce the winners of its first crop of applications in May. The charity will cede more control only if it is sure that Nairobi can manage the programme to its own standards — so AESA staff will undergo a year of training.

Marsh says that other funders have signalled their eagerness to hand over programmes to AESA. “Let’s say we start with £40 million. I’d be disappointed if in a year’s time we haven’t at least doubled that. And in the long term, we have to move to hundreds of millions,” he says.

The funding cannot come just from inter­national donors, African scientists agree. “This is a great initiative. But it will be stillborn unless African governments put money into it,” says Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical epi­demiologist and director of the Durban-based Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa. The hope is that AESA would be attractive because it offers governments a way of awarding merit-based science grants without having to train their own grant managers and set up research funders nationally.

A smaller partnership has already been attempted by the European Union: from 2011 to 2013, it gave €14 million (US$15 million) to the African Union in Addis Ababa to manage competitive grant calls in research areas including agriculture, water and sanitation. But African governments have not followed up on that effort by chipping in with their own money.

AESA has not yet secured any African national government funding. But it will receive $500,000 towards its setting up from the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a continental body for making and implementing policy, with headquarters in Pretoria. Kariuki says that AESA will also lobby African governments to support research in their own countries.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
520,
Pages:
142–143
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/520142a

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