The scramble to help Africa

UK scientists will work alongside colleagues in Ghana and Tanzania in a £3.3m collaboration. Zoe Corbyn reports

November 13, 2008

A £3.3 million programme to fund partnerships between UK and African researchers has been launched by the Royal Society and the Leverhulme Trust.

The Leverhulme-Royal Society Africa Awards will provide funding for collaborations between scientists in the UK and Ghana and Tanzania for research "of significance for the wellbeing of Africa and its people".

The question of how best to enhance Africa's capacity for scientific research and help its countries find home-grown solutions to their problems is an enduring issue on the international science policy scene.

"We are all concerned about the fact that science and technology in Africa needs a lot of input from the rest of the world, but how to do that in a way that is going to be sustainable and effective (is the issue)," said Lorna Casselton, foreign secretary of the Royal Society.

Under the new scheme, which is designed to help at grassroots level, researchers at UK universities will submit bids to work on projects with researchers at Ghanaian or Tanzanian universities.

The research needs to be "directed and relevant" to Ghana, Tanzania or Africa as a whole and must take place primarily in one of the two countries, although there is scope for African researchers to come to the UK for training.

"It has got to be relevant to Africa and needed by Africa," Professor Casselton said.

The programme also focuses on building "on the ground" capacity, such as research skills, within the countries' institutions.

"It is all very well to send promising young people to the UK, Europe or the US and have them trained, but of course they don't go home," she said.

The project builds on a Royal Society networking scheme, which provided small grants for 33 UK academics to visit Ghana and Tanzania to explore possibilities for joint working. It is also similar to a programme it runs to encourage partnerships with South Africa.

Through a series of workshops, the research priorities were developed by the Royal Society in conjunction with the national science academies of Ghana and Tanzania.

The funding, which comes from the Leverhulme Trust but is administered by the Royal Society, will be spread over three annual calls announced each October (the closing date for the current call is 28 January 2009). Six awards of up to £150,000 (£50,000 per year for up to three years) are expected to be made each year, covering research, equipment and travel costs.

Proposals should address one of five "national priority areas": agriculture (including animal health); water and sanitation; basic human health research (including medicinal chemistry); biodiversity (including medicinal plants and green chemistry); and energy (including renewable energy).

Professor Casselton stressed that although those who had received small grants under the initial scheme would be likely to apply for the new funding, the scheme was open to others. She added that the Royal Society hopes eventually to extend the programme to other countries.

The funding was welcomed by Matthew Luhanga, president of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences and former vice-chancellor of the University of Dar es Salaam.

"It will make a difference in that it will re-establish links with UK institutions and scientists within the UK (that we lost) after independence... to share experiences and knowledge.

"That is the only way you can advance and expect to develop either individually as a scientist or as an institution," he said.

He said he assumed that African scientists with a "good track record" would be involved in the Royal Society peer review for the scheme.

He added that the balance between pure and applied research was important. "The Royal Society's emphasis is on pure research rather than applied research. But we will see as we go along where the line will be drawn because what you may find is that a certain aspect of applied research is more relevant in Tanzania," he explained.

The programme was launched last week as part of the Royal Society's "Africa Week" celebrations, which included a meeting of leading African scientists and international science academies and the presentation of the £60,000 Pfizer Award to encourage medical research in sub-Saharan Africa.

The award was won by Enock Matovu, a scientist based at Uganda's Makerere University, for his research into drug resistance to the parasites that cause sleeping sickness. The work has already led to better use of drugs to tackle the disease.

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