Future study to map science funding across Africa

Ambitious research to map flows of science and technology funding to and within Africa might follow a study of science granting councils in 17 Sub-Saharan African countries, which is drawing to a close. One of its aims could be to correlate investment in research with output, to help ascertain how African science systems are performing.

Professor Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology – CREST – at the University of Stellenbosch, said he and his team were working on finalising the report of the large Science Granting Councils in Sub-Saharan Africa project, which is due to be completed by the end of February.

That research, commissioned and funded by Canada’s IDRC – International Development Research Centre – has been generating information on science funding councils and systems and on good practice, comparing organisational structures, showing how councils are situated in national innovation systems, and making proposals on their optimal functioning.

“I think there could be potentially huge follow-up studies,” Mouton told University World News at a final consultative conference for the project held near Stellenbosch late last year and attended by representatives of the councils, experts and other research-focused bodies.

CREST is looking at partnering on further studies with local organisations such as the Pretoria-based National Research Foundation – “especially on the flow of funding” – and the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town.

First research

Mouton said the importance of the science granting councils research should not be underestimated. Among other things, it has published reports for all of the 17 countries.

“Some of the countries have never produced reports like these. So putting out the reports, and disseminating them, is a major output already. But the real value will come from the synthesis report,” said Mouton, which will be published in the coming months.

“The possible follow up project is much more ambitious, and will do a mapping of the flows of funding to Africa for science and technology – from international agencies, across Africa through regional agencies, and even within nations from government, industry and other sources.”

For example, the research would track how much science funding had entered Uganda over the past decade, where it went and the fields funded. “Then the really interesting thing to do would be to correlate this investment in research and development with some output factors.

“If 80% of the money in a certain country flowed into agricultural research, do you see that 80% of the publications come from that field? I don’t know of any African study that has even tried to do that. We need to look at the alignment between input and output factors.

“We won’t even start to think about impact. To my mind, impact is down the line – it is such a huge and difficult thing to measure,” Mouton said.

Science councils' forum?

One of the recommendations that will come out of the Science Granting Councils in Sub-Saharan Africa project will be to create a forum for African science councils.

“There may be immediate uptake on a forum for science councils to meet more regularly, to start sharing information about good practice, calling for and reviewing proposals, deciding on research priorities, avoiding duplication, increasing coordination between sectors and so on,” Mouton told University World News.

“And out of that might flow ideas about the kind of training and technical support some of the younger and emerging councils need to train professionals.

“We know that grant making is an art and an expertise that people obviously don’t just have – they need to be trained and get experience in it. There are a few established councils with established practices, but the majority that we have engaged with, I don’t think they have standard ways of doing things.”

The project would also recommend looking at ways to strengthen Sub-Saharan African science councils, Mouton said. “That’s what international agencies are interested in. They want stronger councils. They want councils that they can work with.”

Ideally, donors and foundations would prefer to work through one organisation in a country, which would channel funding to different centres, rather than having to work themselves with many different bodies or directly with universities. Strong intermediary bodies are required.

“You can’t work with 10 different bodies or 20 universities in the long run. That means the international donor starts to become a funding agent at a national level, a surrogate for a national research foundation. That is too much of a burden, and goes against their philosophy.”

Thus, said Mouton, what might come out of the science granting councils project would hopefully not only be research and information on what is happening out there, but ultimately strengthening and in some cases consolidating African science councils.