African scientists play a crucial role in fighting poverty after the devastation wreaked by COVID-19.
There are still far too few African scientists – only 198 researchers per million, compared to 4,500 per million in the UK and the US. But their contributions are vital to solving a broad range of problems.
African governments need to invest more in research and development to create a pool of talent and expertise that could transform the continent.
For too long, scientific priorities for Africa were determined by people far removed from the challenges faced by the continent. This is changing. African scientists now play a crucial role in fighting hunger and poverty, and achieving sustainable economic growth for the continent. More and more African leaders have publicly committed to investing more in home-grown science, technology and education.
However, much remains to be done. Investment levels are still nowhere near their targets, mainly due to scarce resources and competing priorities. The economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19 is threatening to hurt research budgets that are already extremely tight, and erase recent progress. But the pandemic is also an opportunity to set the right priorities, unleash the power of African science, and support creative, sustainable and appropriate research projects that are based on the reality on the ground.
Here are some ways African governments and organizations can set those priorities and allow African researchers to use their unique knowledge and expertise to solve some of the biggest problems afflicting the continent.
African science for the future
African leaders have publicly recognized the vital importance of investing in research and development. In 2007, the African Union Heads of State summit endorsed a target to allocate 1% of their Gross Domestic Product to research and development. In 2018, ten African heads of state and government committed to increasing investments in education, science and technology. African leaders have also drawn up a continental blueprint for science, the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024). They have adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063, both of which recognize the importance of investing in science, technology and innovation.
However, progress towards these targets has been slow, according to the 2019 African Innovation Outlook, published by the African Union Development Agency. All African countries continue to lag behind in funding science, partly because there are so many other pressing tasks, such as fighting hunger and poverty. A quarter of some countries’ budgets are funded by foreign aid, showing just how limited resources are on the continent.
At the same time, a failure to invest in African science makes it harder to develop home-grown, sustainable solutions to these problems. Many African governments are therefore trapped in a vicious circle when it comes to science funding, which requires taking a long view, and accepting that it may take years to reap the benefits of the initial investment.
COVID-19 has added to this dilemma. On the one hand, it represents yet another urgent problem to be solved, as the pandemic and the associated lockdowns threaten to tip millions of people into deeper poverty. On the other hand, it also highlights the need for African scientists and innovators who could help fight this pandemic and develop solutions for the post-crisis recovery.
As a first step, governments need to create dedicated science ministries to champion this cause. They should also enact laws to allocate a percentage of their GDP to science. Kenya did this very successfully, leading to the creation of a dedicated institution to fund research, the National Research Fund. Government incentives, such as tax rebates in South Africa, can equally encourage the private sector and philanthropists to invest in science. This reduces countries’ reliance on international funding for research and development, especially now when inward-looking policies in donor countries and cuts in foreign aid threaten to reduce funding for Africa.
The next generation of scientists
Investing in science also means investing in future scientists. It means encouraging young people to seek careers in science, and giving them the right educational and professional opportunities.
Africa’s current population stands at around 1.2 billion and is projected to double over the next 30 years, with a majority youthful population. However, the continent currently has only 198 researchers per million inhabitants, compared to 4,500 per million in the UK and the US, and far below the global average of 1,150 per million. Closing this gap by nurturing the next generation of scientists should therefore be a top policy goal for African governments.
The continent’s 54 countries all have varying levels of development, and different strengths and needs. Developing the local pool of knowledge and expertise will support innovations that fit these specific needs. This will ultimately allow Africans to compete globally both in commercial and scientific terms.
Training young scientists requires investments in tertiary education as well as further professional development opportunities in the early and mid-career stages. It also involves supporting senior scientists so they can mentor younger scientists, and developing networks and resources so young scientists can connect with research communities.
Furthermore, governments must invest in physical infrastructure such as laboratories in which to experiment and innovate, roads that allow scientists to get to the labs, power to enable them to use equipment in the laboratories. Training young scientists without investing in the development of their country ultimately leads to brain drain. Even African scientists with a deep passion and commitment to Africa’s development will leave if they cannot prosper at home.
Science in times of COVID-19
Prioritization is most necessary when needs and claims on resources are greater than the available investments. Such thoughtful priority-setting has become even more urgent in the context of COVID-19.
The pandemic is wreaking havoc across Africa. The Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) has reported over 267,000 cases to date. Lockdowns and curfews are hurting African economies. South Africa’s economy, for example, is expected to shrink by 5.8% in 2020, and Nigeria’s by 3.4%, according to the April 2020 World Economic Outlook.
African investment in science can be expected to contract further given the pandemic-related global economic downturn. And yet, such investment is crucial for Africa’s future, and is linked to a wide range of other development targets in fields as diverse as education and healthcare. Simple innovations such as school feeding programmes and the provision of sanitary towels in Kenya and Uganda are keeping girls in schools and transforming societies.
Some home-grown solutions aimed at attracting more investment have been very successful. Investment in clinical trials has for example been boosted by the Clinical Trials Community (CTC), a platform of the African Academy of Sciences. The CTC maps clinical sites and provides a host of information on African clinical trial capacities. It has recently released an enhanced COVID-19 feature to increase the visibility of clinical trial sites and the regulatory and ethics environment under which these trials are conducted in Africa.
Sustained and extensive investment in research and development by South Africa’s Department of Health (DoH) and Science and Innovation (DSI) has provided the country with the capacity and expertise to tackle COVID. Additionally, a tax incentive that encourages South African companies to invest in research and development, including for the development of multi-source pharmaceutical products, is reaping rewards. South Africa has become the only country in Africa to take part in the international Solidarity clinical trial launched by the World Health Organisation. Scientists in South Africa are also investigating the usefulness of existing drugs to treat COVID-19.
African scientists have taken on several vital roles during the current pandemic. They are part of a continent-wide exercise led by the African Academy of Sciences to set priorities for COVID-19 research and development. This includes infection prevention and control, epidemiological studies, clinical management, candidate therapeutics research and development, candidate vaccines and many other fields of research. African governments and funding bodies have tailored their investments to these priorities.
The African Academy of Science has committed $2.8 million in funds to the research and development of scientific interventions for COVID-19 in nine major priority areas. They are laid out in detail in a report, Research and Development goals for Covid-19 in Africa: the AAS priority setting exercise. The $4.75 million COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund, launched under the auspices of the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa (SGCI), was also informed by these priorities.
Africa has a vast pool of talented and passionate people who are willing to devote themselves to improving the continent’s future, and contributing their ideas and expertise to the world of science. The challenge is to use its resources wisely and equip these people with the support they need to thrive. It’s time to step up to the challenge, and lay the foundation for a golden age of African science.