Alliance for accelerating science excellence launched

The African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development have launched the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, or AESA, with the ambition to raise the quality and quantity of the continent’s research output.

Two new research initiatives were also announced in the Kenyan capital Nairobi last week – a £46 million (US$70 million) grant to develop world-class scientists; and Grand Challenges Africa, which supports researchers to find solutions to health and development problems.

The AESA platform was established with initial funding of US$5.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the United Kingdom Department for International Development, or DfID. It will run the new research initiatives.

Scientific independence

In a keynote address at the launch ceremony on 10 September, Mauritian President Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim said African countries must pursue scientific independence as a key pillar towards improving the continent’s human condition.

“Africa must invest heavily in both basic and translational research in order to reduce hunger, unemployment and disease burden,” said Gurib-Fakim, a former dean of science and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Mauritius.

She argued the developments made so far in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields – especially in Sub-Saharan Africa – could only be termed work in progress.

Gurib-Fakim stressed the enormous gap between the global North and South in science, which could only be narrowed by strengthening developing countries’ scientific institutions.

“Now is the moment for African governments to take action and prioritise funding for local scientific research and innovation, as out continent’s future depends on it,” she said.

Closing the science gap

Professor Berhanu Abegaz, executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, said there was an urgent need for Africa to close the science gap.

He pointed out that currently Africa accounted for 15% of the global population but over 25% of the global disease burden. “But even more challenging is that the continent produces less than 2% of the world’s research output,” Abegaz told University World News.

Although there had been a clamour for African countries to increase investment in science, more than half still spent less than 0.5% of gross domestic product on research – far less than the global target of 1%, Abegaz pointed out. Only South Africa and Tunisia are close to this.

In her address, Gurib-Fakim said greater investment in research was needed to accelerate the long-term health and development progress required to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

“As a scientist, entrepreneur and a president, I have seen first-hand the impact investments in science can have both on individual researchers and on a country’s development,” said Gurib-Fakim, who was the 2007 Africa recipient of the UNESCO-L’Oreal Award for her work in the exploration and analysis of plants from Mauritius and their biomedical applications.

Endorsed by the African Union through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development or NEPAD, the AESA platform is geared to support implementation of the union’s strategies in science, technology and innovation, and in health.

NEPAD Chief Executive Dr Ibrahim Mayaki said AESA was expected to be a continental driving force in medical research and innovation. “We are confident that AESA will ensure Africa contributes to the global pool of scientific knowledge and technological innovations.”

Dr Martial De-Paul Ikounga, African Union commissioner for human resources, science and technology at the AU secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said plans were underway to create other scientific platforms similar to AESA.

These hubs would include research and innovation in agriculture, water conservation and climate change, as well as the integration of indigenous knowledge in community-based innovation.

DELTAS initiative

The Wellcome Trust and DfID announced a grant of US$70 million to AESA that will support seven African scientists to establish cutting-edge research and training programmes across the continent.

According to AESA Director Dr Tom Kariuki, the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science, or DELTAS, initiative will establish world-class research centres at African universities with a strong focus on training the next generation of researchers.

“Many of the awards will enable research to be carried out where the health challenges are greatest, for instance in genetic analysis of drug-resistant malaria in Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Uganda,” Kariuki told University World News in an interview last Thursday.

He noted that funds would also be provided to medical researchers working on mental health issues in Zimbabwe, and HIV-Aids and tuberculosis in South Africa. The first awardees are:
  • • Dr Gordon A Awandare for the WACCBIP-Wellcome Trust DELTAS Programme. University of Ghana, Ghana. Award: £5.1 million.
  • • Dr Dixon Chibanda for the African Mental Health Research Initiative. University of Zimbabwe. Award: £4.1 million.
  • • Professor Tobias F Chirwa for the Sub-Saharan Africa Advanced Training Programme for Leadership and Excellence in Biostatistics. University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Award: £3.5 million.
  • • Professor Abdoulaye Djimde for Developing Excellence in Leadership and Genetic Training for Malaria Elimination in Sub-Saharan Africa. University of Science Techniques and Technologies of Bamako, Mali. Award: £5.5 million.
  • • Professor Alison Elliott for the Makerere University UVRI Centre of Excellence for Infection and Immunity Research and Training – MUII-plus. Uganda Virus Research Institute. Award: £4.6 million.
  • • Dr Samson M Kinyanjui for the Initiative to Develop African Research Leaders, IDeAL. KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya. Award: £8 million.
  • • Professor Thumbi Ndung'u for the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB-HIV Research Excellence. K RITH, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Award: £7.3 million.
The DELTAS initiative will have an initial period of five years.

Grand Challenges Africa

The second AESA-driven research initiative – Grand Challenges Africa – falls under the Grand Challenges family of grants, which engages researchers and innovators around the world to solve pressing problems in global health and development.

“Grand Challenges Africa will build on the success of local Grand Challenges programmes in India, Brazil and South Africa, as well as the strong base of African Grand Challenges grantees funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada and USAID,” the African Academy of Sciences said in a release.

Initially, Grand Challenges Africa will focus on supporting the more than 400 existing Grand Challenges grantees in Africa, but ultimately it will develop and manage Africa-specific Grand Challenges aimed at solving problems preventing African countries from reaching the Sustainable Development Goals.

Last week Grand Challenges Explorations launched new calls for proposals focused on antimicrobial resistance, newborn and infant gut health, digital financial services and global health priority areas. Initial grants will be for US$100,000, with successful projects eligible to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.