Building Africa’s science capacity requires broader, fairer collaboration

The EU and the AU’s new innovation agenda is promising, but implementation will be a challenge, says Jan Palmowski

十二月 19, 2022
The sun rises over Africa
Source: iStock

Africa’s share of global science production currently stands at just 4 per cent. That represents considerable growth over the past 20 years, but it is clearly insufficient. The number of research universities in Africa is still far too small, especially for a continent of more than 1.3 billion people, whose population is expected to almost double by 2050.

To address this, the African Union has identified investments in science, technology, research and innovation as key to its Agenda 2063. More recently, the European Union has developed a new global approach, prioritising new types of collaboration in research and innovation. In this context, a new common sense of urgency for African and European science collaboration was amply demonstrated when more than 300 stakeholders – researchers, organisations and science ministries – came together in Nairobi in late November to discuss the draft of the AU and EU’s Innovation Agenda.

One question was paramount at the meeting: what will be different now that science collaboration is at the core of the blocs’ joint strategic vision?

The draft agenda recognises that business as usual is not an option. It proposes long-term investment in African research infrastructure and doctoral schools, as well as joint African-European centres of excellence to address common research challenges. Agreeing on this strategy is an achievement in itself, but one that throws wide open the challenge of implementation.

The key problem is that current funding instruments, notably Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe, were (naturally) designed with Europe in mind. They do provide important support for global research collaboration: Horizon Europe’s Africa Initiative alone commits over €700 million (£600 million) to research collaboration between European and African scientists for 2021-24. But given the scale of the need for African science capacity to grow, this is not enough.

We urgently need additional support from international cooperation ministries and agencies. Their core goal – at the EU as well as national level – is to fund initiatives that address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and, in so doing, support foreign policy. This cannot be achieved without universities. For instance, the IPCC has underlined that “indigenous and local knowledge” is crucial in fighting climate change, yet only 3.8 per cent of global funding for climate research is spent on Africa, and 78 per cent of it goes to researchers outside the continent. We ignore at our peril the significance of African perspectives and insight into the causes and consequences of climate change.

It is difficult to see how funding for international partnerships can achieve lasting transformations to our joint capacities to address such challenges without investing in knowledge production. A growing African science base would help redress brain drain, accelerate the production of well-trained graduates and enhance companies’ access to translational research facilities.

Such a vision for sustainable development funding requires new models of close collaboration. Investments in research infrastructure can only succeed if we support local capacities to build and maintain them. Investing in new generations of scientists requires access to international scientific networks. And a focus on Africa’s knowledge production is predicated on African scientists having access to publications and data.

We need international partnership and R&I funding to speak to each other, so that we can bring together institutional capacity and excellence-based funding, world-class laboratories and growing cohorts of internationally networked PhD students. And we need to find innovative ways to increase African science production while also strengthening research-led education, innovation and societal engagement.

A transformative approach to building African scientific capacity would be as challenging to R&I actors as to international partnership agencies. Europe’s universities, for instance, would need to embrace new types of institutional partnerships in which they sought to strengthen the capacity of their partners to attract research talent from Europe and reverse brain drain – for mutual long-term benefit.

In 20 years, it will be inconceivable to address global scientific challenges without research teams fully inclusive of people from those places that inform the work. The AU-EU Innovation Agenda presents the beginning of a vision for how this will be achieved. But it is only a beginning. 

Jan Palmowski is secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.


Print headline: Investing in Africa’s scientists



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