Findings of major study of science granting councils

The first major study of science granting councils in Sub-Saharan Africa has uncovered significant variations between the science, technology and innovation systems in 17 countries and has identified models that capture the most common arrangements for public research funding. The study is expected to make recommendations on the optimal functioning of councils.

The differences between systems across the continent, the researchers found, were based on geography, political and economic (in)stability, socio-economic histories including colonial legacies, and the degree of institutionalisation of research.

The study by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology – CREST – at the University of Stellenbosch produced a discussion document to inform a workshop of the Science Granting Councils in Sub-Saharan Africa project held outside Cape Town late last year. The project is funded by Canada’s IDRC – International Development Research Centre.

Research and development, or R&D, in Africa is mostly located in universities, science councils, public research institutes and some NGOs, according to the document.

Many governments have committed to increasing gross domestic expenditure on research and development, or GERD, and putting ST&I – science, technology and innovation – policies in place by 2015.

“Few Sub-Saharan Africa countries, however, spend more than 1% of gross domestic product on R&D with Malawi (1.7%), Uganda (1.1%) and South Africa (1.05%) being the only countries to have succeeded thus far.” Nigeria – the region’s most populace country with the biggest university sector – spends only 0.2% on R&D.

In Africa, as in other parts of the world, research and development policies and objectives are implemented through science granting councils and other bodies that have varying mandates ranging from policy formulation, priority setting, programme design and implementation, research funding, capacity development and other advisory functions.

“Despite the significance of these organisations, few systematic studies of science granting councils and related organisations in Africa have been done. This is in contrast to a growing body of scholarship about the nature, roles and functions of such bodies elsewhere.”

Following a decline in support for science in Africa in the 1990s, the importance of building ST&I capacity in developing countries has now been recognised, and “high profile reports outlining new visions, priorities and directions for African ST&I have emerged”, especially from UNESCO, NEPAD, the UN Rio+20 Report and the World Bank.

The 2009 United Nations Millennium Project Report argued that ST&I underpins every Millennium Development Goal “and therefore becomes a prerequisite for development”.

The reports called for the international community’s assistance in promoting technology development, transfer and use in Africa to support countries to build effective ST&I institutions and the capacity to become global knowledge partners, the document says.

The study is expected to provide information on science funding councils, profile good practice, compare organisational structures, show how councils are embedded in the national innovation systems, and make recommendations about the optimal functioning of councils.

It undertook a review of literature and secondary sources, telephone interviews with key people, site visits to most of the countries and the final consultative workshop held in South Africa at the end of last November.


Dedicated funding councils, the study found, were largely characteristic of the science systems of Anglophone countries – for example Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“When considering the Francophone countries, Rwanda and Cameroon traditionally do not have ST&I funding councils. Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal, however, do have efficient funding agencies particularly in agriculture.”

The study used principal-agent theory to frame its work, with “principal-agent relations describing the relationship between two actors where the principal awards resources to the agent which the latter uses to attain the former’s objectives”.

With the transfer of resources, the principal has the right to monitor the activities of the agent, with science policies “as principal-agent games” following a steering approach. The researchers formulated questions regarding the configuration of ‘principal’ and ‘agent’ in each country including roles, supervision, mechanisms and decision-making powers.

A number of models were identified that the researchers believe capture the most commonly found organisational arrangements for public research funding in the 17 countries.

The paradigm principal-agent model

In this model, government delegates responsibility for research funding to a (relatively) autonomous body, usually referred to as a national research or science foundation or council.

The council or foundation receives money directly from government and must account for it regularly, but derives autonomy through a statutory act of establishment and the appointment of a separate board or council.

The council establishes structures, policies and procedures to ensure fair, transparent and efficient disbursement of funds to public universities and research bodies. Foundations typically establish funding instruments such as scholarships, bursaries or grants to effect their mission.

A good example of the paradigm case is the South African National Research Foundation, or NRF, which was set up in 1998 as a statutory body with its own council. It receives funding via the Department of Science and Technology and disburses it through a range of funding instruments to universities on a competitive basis.

The sector-differentiated model

“In some cases, often because of inter-departmental rivalries and vested interests, governments decide to establish different research funding councils or foundations for different sectors in the science system,” says the discussion document. This is referred to as the sector-differentiated model.

Again, an example is South Africa, where three bodies have statutory responsibility for research funding – the NRF; the Medical Research Council, which reports to the Department of Health; and the Water Research Commission, which reports to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.

This model is also found in Burkina Faso, where there are three funding agencies reporting directly to different ministries.

Funding agencies reporting to different ‘principals’ within government “often causes challenges around coordination in science funding in the science system”, the document says.

“A variation of the sector-differentiated model, which can be seen in South Africa as well as in Zambia, is where the R&D ‘sector’ and innovation-commercialisation ‘sector’ are each served by a sector-specific agent.”

Multiple principal-agents model

The researchers also identified a “popular” configuration of the paradigm case, the ‘multiple principal-agents’ model. In addition to funding from government via a council to universities, there are also other ‘principals’ at work, usually international donors, foundations or development agencies that channel funds to universities and research organisations in Africa.

“These two configurations are often found to co-exist – like ‘parallel universes’ – in the same system,” says the document. The study refers to these parallel systems as ‘government’ and ‘non-government’ science funding channels.

“We found that there is often very little or no coordination or interaction between these two funding channels. Such a situation obviously raises many questions: about priority setting, parallel lines of reporting and accounting, duplication and so on.”

The study also found variations of the multiple principal-agents model, mostly related to the strength of government funding versus non-government funding.

Where governments spend at least 0.5% of gross domestic product on research, the government science funding channel is strong and “holds it own” against non-state funding.

“However, it is common knowledge that many African governments do not spend more than 0.2% or 0.3% of GDP on research and development. This often translates into a situation where government funding is weak and, therefore, organisations have to rely heavily on external NGO funding for research.”

This leads to two versions of the multiple principal-agents model: ‘equivalent’ and ‘non-equivalent’. The most common model found was the non-equivalent model, where there is relatively weak government and strong non-government funding.

“Within the equivalent model, there is greater equivalence or parity between the government and non-government funding models. In fact, some governments (such as Côte d’Ivoire) actively collaborate with other governments (Switzerland) to manage the parallel fund.”

Zimbabwe is an example of the non-equivalent variation, but statistics were found to be too weak to make a strong claim.

“We would also argue that where foreign funding for scientific research is significantly bigger than government investment in R&D (non-equivalent model), two different variations may be possible: either the paradigm case with foreign funding being channelled parallel to it, somewhat independently and targeting researchers at grassroots level, or an embedded case.”

As an example of the latter: “Mozambique does not have a national funding council but only a fund associated with a ministry. Yet, in terms of GERD by source of funding, 57% of funds are from abroad compared to only 28% from government. Thus, this is a non-equivalent model but without a national funding council.”

Embedded principal-agent model

A different configuration of the paradigm case, in which the agent is not separate from government, was called the ‘embedded agent’ case – as the agent is organisationally part of a government department. It is usually either a sub-department or directorate in a ministry or department, or a fund or funding programme administered by a department.

“It is evident that the agent is simply an extension of government with no obvious autonomy or independence from the department in which it is located,” says the discussion document.

“Even if it engages in transparent and fair resource allocations practices, the perception from the outside will always remain that such a directorate-fund is too close to the government of the day.”

This model exists in Senegal, with FIRST – the fund to promote scientific and technical research – situated within the ministry of higher education and research. “Other examples are the Local Research and Development Grant in Ethiopia and the Fund for Poverty Research in Mozambique.”

What next?

The study identified ‘milestones’ for each country in the areas of science and technology governance and policy development, such as date of independence, when a science ministry was established, the last change in the ministry, first policy and the policy’s last revision.

“This allowed for comparison between countries’ S&T trajectories. The aim is to classify countries in terms of trends to be inferred from the milestones table, followed by an exercise to try and relate developments in terms of ST&I funding arrangements,” says the document.

* The discussion document was authored by Professor Johann Mouton, Dr Nelius Boshoff, Dr Jacques Gaillard, Professor Frans Swanepoel, Dr Eme Owoaje, David Tumusiime, Professor Barthelemy Nyasse and Milandré van Lill.