Donor funding rules limit basic research opportunities

Africa’s total research output is merely 1% of the world’s scientific research production and there are no indicators that the situation will improve in the near future, simply because there is insufficient funding for science on the continent, according to Elizabeth Marincola, a senior adviser for communications at the Nairobi-based African Academy of Sciences (AAS).

The issue is that, whereas all the 54 countries in the continent committed themselves to spending 1% of their gross domestic product to fund research and development by 2010, none has achieved that goal since the decision was endorsed by the African Union’s Executive Council in 2007.

Marincola said the primary cause of the limited scientific research output in Africa is linked to heavy reliance on contributions from outside the continent. “But, regardless of the source, there is too little of it,” Marincola told University World News.

Amid the financial challenges, Marincola explained that progress in scientific research in Africa is largely hampered by selective policy priorities that are enforced by foreign donors.

In an article, “Quality research in Africa and why it is important”, Marincola and her co-author, Thomas Kariuki, the director of programmes at the AAS, argued that basic research is almost never attractive to foreign commercial funding agencies while African governments often do not have the resources or lack the political will to fill the void.

“Western funding agencies tend to focus on health and medical research and leave the physical, mathematical and chemical sciences as underfunded orphans,” stressed the two researchers.

According to a World Bank report, Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Research: A Decade of Development, whereas research in health sciences accounts for 45% of all research undertaken in Sub-Saharan Africa, only 29% of all research in the sub-region, excluding South Africa, is conducted in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematical fields.

But, even as the prevailing scenario appears to support the idea that donor support was promoting Africa’s research capacity, as well as being instrumental in raising the citation impact of publications by African researchers, the question is whose agenda is on the front line.

Andreas Blom, a manager at the World Bank’s Education Global Practice, and the lead author of the report, stated that very little knowledge transfer occurs between Sub-Saharan African academics and the corporate commercial sector, especially for STEM disciplines.

Even in circumstances whereby minimal knowledge transfer might occur in health sciences, Blom and his associates pointed out that pharmaceutical firms do not rely much on African-generated knowledge and research.

In this regard, Marincola argued that, whereas big innovations are largely built on the foundation of basic research, African scientists are missing opportunity to contribute to that foundation alongside their peers in countries where public investment in basic science has been provided for decades.

What this means is that African academics are struggling to produce new knowledge, or products and processes that could drive new inventions. In their quest to make headway in the advancement of science, African scholars, probably much more than their counterparts in other parts of the world, have become victims of the tyranny of ‘impact factor syndrome’.

“This is the biggest barrier to publishing in Africa and in the rest of the world, especially in the West, whereby scientists feel compelled to submit their output to the most prestigious journal possible, resulting in delays and perverse pressures on the nature of research itself,” said Marincola, who is the head of AAS Open Research, the AAS’ publishing platform.

But, according to Marincola, an expert on open-access scientific publishing, having been the former chief executive officer of the US-based Public Library of Science – the publisher of PLOS Biology, PLOS Medicine and PLOS ONE – African researchers encounter systematic bias in the peer-review process because they often come from institutions and laboratories unknown to their Western peers.

African researchers, according to Marincola, are also more likely to be affected by rising costs of most peer-reviewed journals, as publishers are increasingly tightening their waiver policies as they face their own financial pressures.

Low familiarity with the nuances of the peer-review process is another factor that impedes African scholars in academic publishing. The issue is that scientists in Africa are sometimes less informed of the best opportunities for publishing their work, in terms of choosing a journal or other platform and managing the submission and other publication processes, compared with counterparts in Europe and the US, Marincola told University World News.

According to the AAS, African researchers are often victims of language and stylistic barriers that can result in quality research being delayed by journal editors before being sent for review or, at worst, can lead to failure of good research being published.

High rejection of articles by high-impact journals published outside the continent, coupled with a lack of research mentoring, has driven a large segment of African scholars and researchers to the waiting predatory journals of no academic value. According to Marincola and Kariuki, predatory publishers are increasingly targeting potential academic authors from Africa and other developing countries.

Advising African scholars and researchers to avoid publishing in the predatory press, most of which provide easier pathways for publishing their work, Marincola said “peer-reviewed science publishing is the only currency by which researchers validate their work, form collaborations, build on others’ work and enable others to build on their work and advance their careers”.

Towards this objective, the AAS-AESA (the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) has launched AAS Open Research to provide a publishing platform from associated scientists to publish their work on a platform that is open, immediate, peer reviewed and indexed. According to Marincola, the development has increased the visibility of excellent African science, as well as helping early career African researchers to manage their job prospects with the support of academic publishing strategies.

But there are indicators that, despite initiatives such as the one introduced by the AAS to improve research in the continent, such efforts are few and far between, especially within the universities.

According to a study conducted mid-last year on building research capacity in African universities, by David Ekepu, a PhD candidate and Dr Anthony Egeru, both of Makerere University, Kampala, limited financial resources had been a key obstacle.

In their study, “Building Interdisciplinary Research Capacity in African Universities: Insights from the Sentinel Project”, research priorities in African universities pointed not to attempts to generate new knowledge and patents but to financial benefits that could be accrued directly by researchers.

Out of 16 identified priorities, career promotions, availability of research grants and monetary rewards for research publications were the most preferred, while intellectual property rights for researchers and presence of research centres of excellence were some of the least preferred priorities.

Although African scientific research may have suffered over the years for a relative lack of leadership in terms of representation of African researchers as peer reviewers and editors, as well as facing barriers to navigate the peer-review processes, as Marincola has pointed out, there should be a way out to advance African research output and the overall African science and innovations.

One such a route is an Afrocentric standpoint held by Dr Violet Makuku, the project manager of the harmonisation of African higher education, quality assurance and accreditation project at the Association of African Universities, who argues that African academics and researchers should not rush to publish in high impact factor journals outside Africa which are said to be of better quality, because that promotes those journals at the expense of African journals.

“Part of that push is embedded in colonial mentality and self-hate of some black scholars as they consider themselves and whatever is from Africa as inferior,” Makuku told University World News.

Makuku suggested there is urgency for African universities to concentrate on the establishment and promotion of their own journals, set quality standards and patronise them to increase their impact factor and institutional visibility, as well as using them for promotion criteria and career progress.

But whichever the way forward for African academics to increase Africa’s footprint in global scientific research output and innovations, the onus is on governments that so far have failed to support research properly, despite making empty promises to advance Africa’s scientific agenda.