Creating the ecosystems needed for science to thrive

The African Academy of Sciences, or AAS, founded in 1985, aspires to shape the continent’s strategies and policies and implement key science, technology and innovation programmes. University World News spoke to its new interim executive director, Dr Thomas Kariuki, about how the organisation intends to drive scientific and technological development in Africa.

UWN: What is the role of a science academy in Africa?

TK: As an academy, we recognise that science, technology and innovation can provide solutions to the health and other developmental challenges facing Africa. Science, technology and innovation produce the products and data to inform policy and practice. But in order for it to play its role effectively, there is need to support and train scientists and provide conducive environments to enable them to produce quality research to inform and influence products, policy and practice.

Our focus is creating the ecosystems for STI to thrive and to enable it to contribute to the development of Africa. Africa needs science to overcome its socio-economic hurdles.

UWN: How does AAS choose its fellows?

TK: Our fellows are individuals who have reached the highest level of excellence in their field of expertise and have made contributions to the advancement of the field on the continent. To become an AAS fellow, one has to be nominated by a current fellow.

Relevant specialist committees assess nominees and those that are recommended are subsequently voted in by AAS fellows and finally approved by the AAS governing council that consists of 15 officers and meets twice a year to create and review the academy’s programmes.

UWN: How does the AAS plan to keep expert researchers in Africa?

TK: Our aim is to support the training and retention of Africa’s best scientific talent. Africa loses an average of about 20,000 professionals a year to countries outside the continent, most of whom are young people who leave because of lack of infrastructure and opportunities to grow their scientific careers.

We have developed programmes to contribute to retaining Africa’s best scientists. The AAS Affiliates programme is one example of this. The programme is designed to provide opportunities for early career scientists to receive mentorship and promote their professional development.

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, or AESA, the agenda-setting and funding platform that we created with the NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) Agency with the support of international partners, has several programmes that offer training fellowships and mentorship and invest in research environments, including the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science, or DELTAS Africa, the Climate Impacts Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement, or CIRCLE, Grand Challenges Africa, or GC Africa, and Human Heredity and Health in Africa, also known as H3Africa.

DELTAS Africa is designed to cultivate professional environments to manage and support scientific research; GC Africa supports bold creative ideas and innovations through the pathway of discovery, development and eventual delivery to the marketplace; H3Africa supports genetics and genomics studies that can address issues of disease susceptibility, pathology and how we react to drugs and medicines; and CIRCLE is a programme to develop the skills and research results for early career African researchers in the field of climate change.

UWN: How does AAS work with universities?

TK: The programmes we fund are geared towards researchers in universities and research institutions across Africa. As an example, DELTAS Africa is supporting more than 30 institutions, the majority being universities. (Lead institutions for DELTAS Africa include Makerere University in Uganda, the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal, the University of Technical Science and Technology in Bamako, Mali, the University of Ghana, the University of Zimbabwe, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa).

They are receiving millions of dollars for investment in their DELTAS programmes to recruit students and build their research infrastructure. CIRCLE is also working with universities in about nine countries to train climate change researchers.

UWN: In an age of globalisation, what is the value of a continental network?

TK: We encourage collaboration between African scientists and those outside the continent. Collaboration with the North has greatly assisted in increasing researchers’ publications and their profiles. However, we would like to promote intra-Africa collaboration, especially as countries often face similar problems.

This way we avoid duplicating research and wasting limited human resources and infrastructure. Intra-Africa collaboration will increase impact, especially where we train future generations of scientists and we speak with a collective voice to policymakers.

Globalisation is driven by ideas and innovation. The countries that will exploit globalisation to their full advantage are those that prioritise the building of knowledge-based economies that are driven by science and innovation, which will always flow unencumbered around the world.

UWN: What are your priorities as interim head of AAS?

TK: My priorities will be to see the AAS deliver on its mandate of recognising excellence among African scientists and institutions, implementing science programmes that will produce evidence to support policymaking and advocacy. We want to build vibrant, mutually beneficial African and global partnerships that benefit African science. We also want to stimulate more discussions on investments for science, including significant portions coming out of African governments.

UWN: How will your academic background in health assist you in your role?

TK: It has been a journey that has taken me more than 20 years from the lab bench, to institutional leadership at various organisations and currently at AAS. My experience in building institutions, providing leadership, mentorship and grant-making has prepared me. I have published extensively on the priorities for STI in general and specific capacity needs for health research in Africa.

We have also built extensive African and global partnerships that we are mobilising to support science in Africa. This is also about being passionate and having a vision for this agenda.

UWN: The AAS has come a long way since 1985. What are some of its major achievements?

TK: Our recent achievements include the creation of AESA, which has, together with our partners, invested US$150 million in research and innovation, and the establishment of new and expansion of existing programmes to foster scientific excellence, leadership and innovation that address health and developmental challenges.

UWN: The AAS runs a number of initiatives courtesy of generous funding from development partners. What is the long-term plan for achieving sustainability?

TK: We are mobilising and building partnerships with African governments, private and philanthropic organisations. We believe that investment by international funders must be gradually replaced by African funding to ensure sustainability in harnessing science, technology and innovation for developmental growth.

For example, South Africa’s Medical Research Council provided an additional R10 million (US$760,000) to support the first call for proposals for the GC Africa innovation grants, and GlaxoSmithKline has also provided additional funding to support the H3Africa call for proposals.

At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January, together with our partners, we announced the Coalition for African Research and Innovation, or CARI, which is an initiative to bring new resources and better connect existing investments to support health and development in Africa.

Dr Thomas Kariuki’s appointment follows the departure of Professor Berhanu Abegaz who was at the helm of the academy for six years until his contract ended on 6 March 2017.