While external support has been crucial for research in Africa, the urgent need to strengthen local and government funding to ensure sustainability cannot be overemphasised.Credit: Image Source/ Getty Images

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For a researcher working on food security at University of Nairobi, the Swedish Research Council’s decision in 2023 to slash $16.4 million in grants for development research was more than a personal blow.

It wasn’t the first time the academic, who requested anonymity, had received bad news in his career. But a total withdrawal of funding during a call cycle, with proposals already under review, was a first, he says.

Ghanaian biochemist and executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, Peggy Oti-Boateng, says the Swedish cuts affected at least 20 of the academy’s research scientists. Since they all teach students, however, the ripple effect about five times that number.

Sue Harrison, University of Cape Town’s deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, experienced foreign funding cuts when UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced budget changes in 2020 that resulted in a US$166 -million shortfall in its aid-supported programmes. “A number of our researchers were hit, with our young researchers worst impacted, a number simply losing their funding,” she says.

Besides recurring cuts, African researchers are often excluded from grant agendas altogether. In 2021, scientists from Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania wrote an open letter to major international funders to highlight the total exclusion of African institutions from a US $30 million grant awarded to the non-profit health organization PATH by the US government’s President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI). The grant funded a consortium of seven institutions in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to support African countries in the improved use of data for decision-making in malaria control and elimination.

Broader challenge

The researchers were concerned with the broader challenge of uninterrupted resources to create and generate knowledge and innovations to tackle Africa-specific challenges which rarely feature on international agendas but are critical to influence policy and practice.

“Our consortium of researchers in Sweden and East Africa had two proposals under review. We had great plans to conduct research on multifunctional trees and regenerative kitchen gardens to enhance indigenous food systems in the East African drylands, but now this work to help achieve food and nutrition resilience has slowed down,” says the University of Nairobi researcher.

African research agendas and funding continue to be subjected to the fluctuations of funding and vagaries of partners from the global north. Although Africa represents 18% of the world population, it only produces 1% to 2% of the global research and innovation outputs.

South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria are the top three African countries making significant progress in securing grants that allow scientists to drive their own research agendas, according to the SCImago Journal & Country Rank portal, which tracks journals and country scientific indicators. Even in those countries, however, researchers continue to grapple with limited financial resources, sometimes personally funding their endeavours.

The need for Africa to turn its focus to high-value investments, such as research and development (R&D) and infrastructure, is highlighted as a priority in the Africa Growth Initiative’s 2023 Foresight Africa report. Yet, 17 years after African Union member states committed to spending 1% of their GDP on research and development, the continent’s funding is at only 0.42%, in sharp contrast to the global average of 1.7%.

Not one country has reached the 1% target. Even South Africa, the continent’s biggest spender on research and innovation as a share of GDP, has reached only 0.85% at its peak spending.

Although Africa represents 18% of the world population, it only produces 1% to 2% of the global research and innovation outputs, with African countries glaringly absent from the World Intellectual Property Organization’s list of the world’s top 20 innovative countries. The top 20 list is determined by research and development expenditure, and the number of both domestic patent applications and public high-tech companies.

Some of the continent’s top scientists warn that African researchers, especially early-career scientists, are being disadvantaged by the failure of their countries to recognise the true value of research. “In Africa, we have not understood that making our countries competitive in science will also make them competitive economically. We continue to view research as an expense, rather than an economic investment,” says South Africa’s Salim Abdool Karim, professor of global health in Columbia University and director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA).

Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Redeemer’s University in Nigeria, says: “Africa must realise that the future of the continent’s economic growth and development is inextricably linked to R&D.”

Putting African researchers in the driving seat

Funding cuts are devastating for researchers, but are often deeper and bigger than just the cuts. Grants often come with particular priorities and agendas, leaving crucial research areas left underfunded, and dissuading students from pursuing careers in research.

Oti-Boateng says Africa’s over-reliance on foreign funding that could be suspended at any time highlights the need for diversification of funding sources, and for African governments and the private sector to step up. “The other critical reason for self-funded research is to ensure that it’s not donors who are dictating the direction our research takes. They have their own priorities, which are mostly different to ours, but because we don’t have the money, we’re not the ones driving the agenda,” she warns.

While external support has been crucial for research in Africa, the urgent need to strengthen local and government funding to ensure sustainability cannot be overemphasised. For Harrison: “We shouldn't simply be doing the work that other people want us to do, just because we need their money. It is important that we are also funded by our governments and our taxpayers, and are doing the work that is relevant to our context.”

Joab Odhiambo, senior lecturer at Meru University of Science and Technology in Kenya says the continent is already experiencing a decrease in the number of young people pursuing PhDs.

”The scarcity of young PhD graduates in developing regions like sub-Saharan Africa will have profound negative implications for socio-economic development,” he says.

According to the Coalition for African Research and Innovation (CARI), the proportion of researchers in the African population is 25 and 28 times lower than for the United Kingdom and the United States, respectively. The percentage of Africans pursuing graduate studies is three times lower than the global average, with similar gaps in facilities and equipment necessary to conduct cutting-edge research.

Karim, whose centre, established 20 years ago and now has 57 PhDs and 36 medical doctors, says “the whole venture of science needs to have research infrastructure that’s built into institutional capacity. It’s built on many generations of scientists and that requires long-term sustained resources, not short-term grants.”

Kelly Chibale founded the University of Cape Town Holistic Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), Africa’s first integrated drug discovery and development centre has grown from five people in 2010 to 76 people, with a separate academic group to train and supervise PhD students.

“We need to seek out Africa’s pockets of excellence and support those to succeed. If we are able to locally create an absorptive capacity to attract talent, to nurture and develop that talent, we will be able to retain it,” he says.

A vibrant and self-sufficient research landscape in Africa starts with countries meeting their Abuja Declaration commitments. One of the key features of the 2001 declaration is a binding pledge by all African signatory countries to allocate at least 15% of a country’s annual budget to improving the health sector. Five years later, the Eighth Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) endorsed the call on Member States, at the African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology, to raise national science and technology budgets to 1% of GDP.

This was further emphasised at the AU’s Executive Council in 2007, when Member States were strongly urged to promote Africa’s research and development, and develop innovation strategies for wealth creation and economic development, by allocating at least 1% of GDP to R&D by 2010.

“We have to start there, or we will always be standing with a begging bowl asking (northern hemisphere) countries to fund our scientists. African research agendas will never be prioritised until Africa’s scientists are funded by their own countries,” Karim says.