International funders determine the research agenda

Has donor funding for research skewed the scientific enterprise in Sub-Saharan Africa? Based on publications in peer-reviewed journals and patent registrations, questions are being raised about who is setting the research agenda on the continent and what the implications are for research capacity there.

According to a study, “The nature of and motive for academic research in higher education: A Sub-Saharan African perspective,” conducted by Dr Muhamadi Kaweesi, a senior lecturer in education management and administration at the Islamic University in Uganda and his associate researchers, donors were setting the scientific research agenda, radically eroding the concept of independence in research in the region.

For instance, the World Bank points out that Sub-Saharan Africa’s research in health sciences, which accounts for 45% of all research conducted in the sub-region, is largely driven by financial support from donors.

“International research funding, which comprises the majority of Sub-Saharan Africa research funding, prioritises health and agricultural research,” stated the World Bank in a key study, “Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Research: A Decade of Development”.

What this suggests is that donor-funded research in health and agriculture, coupled with the collaboration of international researchers, has the capacity to yield more peer-reviewed articles.

More papers are written than in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields or even in other areas that lack funding and infrastructure.

For decades, driven by both their own interests and the encouragement of governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, donors have prioritised funding research in health and agriculture.

In Kenya, the research output also appears to suggest that donor contributions are dictating and influencing research priorities. According to SCImago’s most recent, database, a large part of Kenya’s research output occurred only in health and agricultural sciences. SCImago’s indicators measure, among other things, the scientific influence of scholarly journals and the impact factor of journal articles.

Of Kenya’s 3,615 publications in peer-reviewed journals in 2019, more than 40% were in the ‘miscellaneous’ medical field (553), followed by public health (421), infectious diseases (402), virology (73), immunology and microbiology (61) and epidemiology (51). Agricultural sciences came second with studies on crop science (237), animal science (159), food science (145), plant science (145) genetics (112), insect science (90), varied agricultural and biological sciences (71) and soil science (51), amassing about 30% of the total number of publications.

A lack of internal research capacity

Although, technically, there is nothing wrong with accessing donor aid or international collaboration in scientific research activities, it appears in Kenya, or in that matter, in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, that research not funded by donors is usually ignored.

According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa’s high reliance on international collaboration for research signals a lack of internal research capacity and the critical mass to produce quality research on an international standard on its own, particularly within STEM fields.

For instance in 2019, SCImago’s database indicates Kenya’s peer-reviewed articles in some STEM fields were as follows: electrical and electronic engineering (30) followed by civil engineering (19), industrial and manufacturing engineering (17), computer science (12) and control and systems engineering (10).

But the situation was worse in highly specialised STEM areas such signal processing (11), control and systems engineering (10), building and construction (8), aerospace engineering (6) acoustics (3), electrochemistry (2) and automotive engineering (0).

Ten papers in various branches of higher mathematics were published in the year under review but, more strangely, between 1996 and 2019, only one paper in discrete mathematics was published.

But what the SCImago’s database has also revealed is quite contrary to the perception that more research in the social sciences and humanities was done in Kenya and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

For instance, in the year under review, only 22 papers were published in miscellaneous arts and humanities subject areas, eight in both accounting and finance, five in literature and two in architecture.

The subsequent low publication in refereed academic journals begs the question as to where academic staff and researchers in Kenya publish their research.

Although the country has 70 universities, staffed by 18,731 academics teaching in 3,820 degree programmes, the research output in most of the disciplines are barely minimal.

Whereas almost all the universities have 290 education programmes that account for about 13% of the entire university enrolment in Kenya, SCImago database recorded only 103 papers in 2019, while the previous year it had 76 papers.

Quite surprisingly, a random review of the SCImago database for 2019 showed 35 papers were published in law, with some in fields such as applied mathematics (23), history (17), tourism (12), gender studies (11), language and linguistics (8), marketing (6), numerical analysis (2), research theory (1) and logic (0).

Low output and donor funds

What the data implies is that very little research that would merit publication in high-impact factor journals takes place in most universities. It would be good to know where postgraduate students had been publishing their research.

According to the Commission for University Education, PhD students in Kenya are expected to publish at least two papers in peer-reviewed journals and, while it is not mandatory, masters-level students are encouraged to publish at least one paper. There are 680 PhD programmes and 1,389 masters programmes in Kenya’s university education system.

Low research output that is not supported by donor funds is not unique to Kenya, as the situation is worse in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, except in South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia. In the SCImago’s country ranking index, Kenya is placed fourth in Sub-Saharan Africa, seventh in Africa and at 72nd position out of 159 countries that were graded globally.

Highlighting the problem, Kaweesi and his associates at Makerere University, Professor Ronald Bisaso, the dean of the East African School of Higher Education Studies and Development, and Betty Akullu Ezati, dean of the School of Education and an associate professor of education and management, identified donor funds as a factor that has negatively affected research output in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“When donors come here, they have already decided on what they want,” said the three researchers. Citing the case of Makerere University in particular, Kaweesi’s study argued over-dependence on donor funding for the university research has had negative consequences such as undermining scholarly autonomy and promoting a degree of research passivity in disciplines that are not donor funded, or lack research funds altogether.

Notably, this can explain the Kenyan situation whereby research in infectious diseases produced 402 publications in 2019 and with 5,399 publications between 1996 and 2019 it was one of the best-researched areas in the world.

In this area, Kenya was only second to South Africa in Africa in terms of high-impact factor publications and in 26th position globally.

As Kaweesi has pointed out, the obvious benefits of generous donor funding include closer contact with the outside world as well as hastening promotion and career progression of the funded researchers in the universities.

Although Kenya allocates 0.8% of its Gross Domestic Product to research and development, which is double the average share for Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion is far too little to enhance the country’s inclusive research agenda or even to upgrade its technological capacity.

It also poses the question as to the direction in which research in Kenya and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa will go — and if it will continue to rely heavily on donors that have their own priorities to take care of.