African science councils call for more coordination
The consultative conference was attended by leaders of science funding councils from 17 countries covered in a study conducted by the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology – CREST – at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and commissioned by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, IDRC.
The council leaders and policy experts held brainstorming discussions around major issues, to identify key challenges that needed to be tackled and with a view to contributing to a future research agenda.
Need for information
Participants suggested that a more detailed picture of science funding in African nations was needed, including mapping where funding comes from and relationships between ministries, councils and donors.
More time and studies were required, one of the groups said, “to get to grips with what is happening on the ground in partner countries”.
Francophone country councils proposed audits to identify the funding and infrastructure used to support research in each country, including donor activity. Also, there was a need for a “clearer idea and consensus around the contributions of research to national development”.
East Africa and Ghana argued for greater focus in CREST research on the links between research funding and priorities, as well on the impacts of research identified in some of the case studies and comparative analyses.
Further, participants believed, there needed to be deeper consideration of contributions of regional bodies such as the European Union and African Union. Also, various streams of data existed in different countries and needed to be captured.
Data also needed to be more contextualised. The fact that not all countries had produced a national science policy did not mean attention had not been given to the area. For example, said delegates from East Africa and Ghana, there had been a lot of focus on research training and capacity development in Ethiopia but it was not reflected in policy.
Overall, it was essential to produce more information and to better understand funding flows and the ways they were measured. This was not only about the type of data gathered.
One major area of discussion was collaboration between science councils, described by participants as “critical”.
There was a need for science granting councils to cooperate within countries, many of which have multiple bodies, and – perhaps even more importantly – there should be collaboration between national and regional as well as international agencies.
How could such cooperation be managed and improved, and what would be most helpful to African councils? The IDRC has conducted similar work with science councils in other parts of the world such as Latin America, North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. It could be helpful for African agencies to feed into and learn from those growing networks.
One gap in the research so far, said some delegates, was that it did not suggest ways to build effective partnerships between science councils. “We need to come up with models on good ways to get collaboration going.”
Science council leaders from Southern Africa concluded that opportunities for collaboration existed, but that countries were at different levels and did not always have the support structures and mechanisms.
There was a need within countries for an apex science body, not to control but to coordinate collaboration and research, and track funding and the activities of the ministries and councils involved in science, technology and innovation, or STI.
Many African countries have several science councils – for instance for agriculture, health or industry – under different ministries, and it is often unclear who is doing exactly what.
“An apex body would have to be aligned to the highest office in the land, that of the president,” said delegates from East Africa and Ghana. “It is not easy for one ministry to have authority over another, but the office of the president would be listened to.”
At the regional level, Francophone countries suggested, it would be helpful to devote two researchers to investigate STI systems, and to find funding that would support the creation of a coordinating body for science councils.
East African delegates agreed that sharing information was a “big gap” at the national level, and this translated to the regional and international levels. Sometimes, universities did not know what science councils were doing.
“A solution could be to create a platform for information focusing on funding at the national and regional levels, and to engage regional groupings. We also need collaboration to avoid duplication and ensure the effective and efficient use of resources, which are being wasted.”
Participants agreed on the need to find common themes and priorities at the regional level, and to establish regional forums where colleagues could discuss issues of common interest.
At the international level, delegates decided that there were opportunities for collaboration with the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – bloc. One question was how African science councils could tape into such collaboration and ensure partnerships cut across regions.
Rather than inventing new structures, councils should position themselves to take advantage of science-related activities of continental bodies such as the African Union, its implementing arm the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, regional groups such as the Southern African Development Community, and think-tanks in Africa and around the world.
One possibility would be to open offices in other parts of the world, in cooperation with development partners. Another would be to create national and regional platforms to link with international bodies, “to ensure global science collaboration and leverage opportunities”.
Professor Johann Mouton, director of CREST, said the final report of the study was due by the end of February 2014.
“Already it is clear, from the CREST study and this workshop, that really what is needed is better understanding of how funds flow, where they go and under what conditions. This would be a big study, but somebody will have to do it.”
Another idea was to change perspective, said Mouton. Who applies for what funds and why? That too would require a survey, “the other side of the coin to the first approach”.
During the conference, there had been “very positive signs of colleagues exchanging ideas and networking. That needs to be on the agenda. There are so many areas for technical support and capacity building that councils could come together and engage around.”
Dr Ellie Osir, senior programme specialist for the IDRC in Nairobi, said the Science Granting Councils in Sub-Saharan Africa project was “just the beginning of a long journey. We are trying to look at the landscape, identify issues and trends and then hopefully do something about the challenges. I hope we can stick together.”
One of the points that emerged from the conference, and resonated with IDRC thinking, “was the need for forums to share experience and promote interactive learning – an open space to freely share ideas and knowledge and lessons”.
One point made a number of times was the need for policies and mechanisms for funding science, Osir said. “You may have funding, but if you don’t have policies and mechanisms, you’re not going to get very far.”
There was an ongoing need to strengthen national innovation systems across Africa. In doing so, it was not only necessary to look at science granting councils – critical though they were – but also at the roles of universities, governments and intermediaries among others. “We can’t just strengthen the councils and forget about other actors within systems of innovation.”
The private sector had come up, and it was important to have deeper understanding of its role in African research and factors constraining links and private sector involvement.
The current study focused on councils at the national level, but there were also sub-regional, regional and continental bodies that supported research. “It is critical that we understand exactly how they do their work and how nationally-based science councils can collaborate.”
“As much as we are talking about national priorities, it is also important to think of some sub-regional and regional priorities and use them as platforms for sharing lessons and learning.” It was very important to avoid duplication and look for synergies.
Osir said the IDRC would share reports that were ongoing or completed from other regions of the world with the African councils, so issues of common concern could be identified. The regional reports would be compiled into a book that councils worldwide could learn from.