Africa sees end to ‘helicopter research’ as pandemic changes minds

Travel restrictions on Western scholars have shown how African scientists can step up to lead, global health experts believe

July 15, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic may hasten the end of “helicopter research” in which scientists from wealthier countries lead major projects but spend only a small amount of time in Africa, global health experts have argued, following the emergence of homegrown science leaders during the crisis.

With most scientists from the US and Europe unable to travel to Africa for months due to Covid-linked travel restrictions, researchers from Africa have taken charge of major international global health projects normally run from the West, senior scholars told an online panel event that was organised by the University of Cape Town, whose vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng voiced her frustration with the high levels of “helicopter research” done in some parts of Africa.

However, the successful leadership of African scientists during the pandemic has shown their ability to lead more research projects in future, said Rifat Atun, professor of global health systems at Harvard University.

“This change has been happening over time, but Covid has unmasked all the good things that have been happening [in African science],” said Professor Atun, who bemoaned the fact that “95 per cent of research funding ends up in Western institutions and very little ends up in Africa”.

“Africa should lead research and funding should follow to African universities, not via institutions in Western countries,” added Professor Atun, who was previously director of strategy at the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which distributes about $4 billion (£3.2 billion) a year in medical research funding across more than 100 countries.

“At the Global Fund, we strongly supported the notion of country ownership, where funding goes to countries based on that country’s needs,” he added, saying that the “disproportionate” allocation for Western institutions had to end, even if their governments provided the bulk of funding.

“If research is going to be done in Africa it must be equitably funded and must benefit African countries” said Professor Atun, who said that more resources should be devoted to capacity building on the continent.

Kevin Marsh, director of the Africa Oxford Initiative at the University of Oxford and senior adviser at the African Academy of Sciences, Kenya, agreed that the enforced grounding of Western scientists had showcased the “ability [of African scientists] to take on leadership in setting the research agenda” for emerging health threats.

“It has revealed that leadership for Covid-19 is coming from within Africa,” explained Professor Marsh, adding that “this wasn’t caused by Covid – the change has been coming for some time”.

Kelly Chibale, professor in organic chemistry at University of Cape Town, said it was vital that global research became more Africa-focused as treatments and drugs developed and tested primarily in the Global North may not be as effective among populations of largely African genetic backgrounds – an issue that was being increasingly discussed amid the race to find a vaccine for Covid-19.

“When Africa is not the centre of gravity what happens is that solutions developed in the Global North that address problems in Africa are not always effective,” explained Professor Chibale, who said that just 2 per cent of clinical drug trials took place in Africa.

That said, Professor Chibale said he recognised why research funders in the US and Europe might prefer to select their own researchers as principal investigators.

“We have to understand that the person with the money calls the shots – you cannot…dictate to them how they should use their own money,” he said, adding that “if we want to be an equal partner, we must bring something to the table”, either in the form of funding, research infrastructure or proven expertise.

On the question of what African science could do to “earn the respect” of the global research community and “debunk whatever myths there are about our continent”, Professor Chibale said Africa “could not even start to think about” a more balanced research dynamic until it had “world-class, competitive infrastructure”.

“If we want to shift the dynamic, it will not happen by just talking about it or demanding it – it will happen by performing, by doing it,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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