Donors should focus on national research funds

Finding reliable sources of funding has been a perennial problem for African researchers. A long-term lack of interest in university research means that few countries have substantial national research grants open to scientists.

In the absence of such grants, the majority of African science depends on international support from development agencies or international research funders. This dependence hamstrings African science, since these sources are neither dependable nor always tailored to suit local research priorities.

The recent trend of African countries establishing national research funds could take the pressure off local scientists. But such funds will be successful only if they prove reliable and sustainable – something that international agencies active in Africa can help to ensure.

The national pipeline

Several African governments have in the past couple of years announced plans to set up national research funds. The motivation is a desire to give their scientists the means to solve local problems, and to revitalise long-neglected universities.

These include Nigeria, which is planning a fund modelled on the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and bankrolled by the country's significant oil wealth. Other less wealthy nations, such as Burkina Faso, Burundi, Ghana, Kenya and Namibia, are also setting up funds.

While few of these are up and running, their ambitions vary.

Ghana's initial fundraising target of US$2 million from the country's government is modest – a single grant from the NSF can easily match that sum.

Meanwhile, Kenya's government is pushing for a one-off investment of 2% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) – US$660 million at its 2011 GDP level. This funding may not be disbursed all at once, but may form the foundation of an endowment fund, the annual interest of which would pay for grants.

Nevertheless, it is a huge sum to spend on science in a country where annual spending levels on research and development are below 0.5% of GDP. Kenya's government and international donors would be expected to top up the fund as part of the proposal, which is currently being debated in parliament.

Going local

Most African scientists interviewed were overwhelmingly positive about national grants.

They said that they would prefer local funding – even if they currently enjoy prestigious grants from the likes of the Wellcome Trust, a UK medical research foundation, or the US National Institutes of Health.

Andrew Kiggundu, a biotechnologist at Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation, says he would choose local funding. "The research focus would be local and there would be fewer requirements for international partnerships – which don't always work, and which restrict this type of funding."

Uganda is not setting up a fund, but over the past six years local funding has had a boost through a US$33 million low-interest loan through the World Bank's Millennium Science Initiative (MSI).

The government has said that it wants to keep up this momentum, keeping the MSI programmes going with its own money.

However, there are those who fear that having more local funding will create a two-tier research system where only top scientists receive prestigious international grants.

"It will create glass ceilings," says fellow Ugandan Tom Egwang, a medical researcher. "The fragmentation will not help build science in Uganda."

The S-word

The success of these funds will depend on their ability to provide consistent funding. A flash-in-the-pan fund that doles out cash for a few years only to then peter away would do more harm than good.

Government priorities are fickle in Africa, as they are elsewhere. Much as a government might want to support its scientists, a catastrophic flood – or disease outbreak – could take precedence in annual budget negotiations.

This is where those aid agencies and international research funders that have a strong stake in Africa can help.

If aid agencies are serious about building capacity on the continent, they can help by simply adding to the fund, rather than spending money on their own research funding programmes.

Joint efforts

Meanwhile, purebred research funders – the Wellcome Trust, the NIH and so on – should also lend their support, perhaps by establishing joint programmes with the national funds.

Joint programmes would help the funds through their fraught early years, as well as boosting the image of national grants among those who think them lesser than international ones. Finally, such a move would help coordinate research priorities between local and international funding.

These types of joint programmes have historically been difficult for international funders to set up because of the lack of national African agencies with responsibility for research grant making.

Hopefully, Africa's national funds will come attached to national research councils, able to negotiate bilateral agreements with foreign funders.

These funds are great news if they prove sustainable. African scientists have waited too long for dedicated, national funding, tailored to national challenges. They should not have to wait any longer.

* This article by Linda Nordling, “Donors should focus on national R&D funds”, was published by SciDev on 8 November 2012. It is republished under a Creative Commons licence.