Research at the heart of Europe, Africa’s new Innovation Agenda

Greatly expanded cooperation in research and innovation was agreed at the sixth European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) summit in Brussels on 17-18 February. A new Innovation Agenda sees universities as gateways between the continents, places science at the heart of development and creates a changed paradigm for collaboration based on equal partnerships.

The summit announced an investment package of at least €150 billion (US$170 billion) and proposed a range of cooperative actions in four priority areas – public health, the green transition, innovation and technology, and capacities for science.

Ahead of the summit, university networks in Africa and Europe – the African Research Universities Alliance and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities – called on the regional unions to prioritise research and innovation (R&I) capacity in Africa, and especially the development of centres of research excellence.

Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild, said in a statement on Friday 18 February that identification of universities as gateways between Europe and Africa “confers on universities a responsibility to use the investment that is likely to follow collaboratively and for the benefit of society. And it invites us to reimagine how we work together, as scientists, students and institutions.

“Universities have been handed a huge opportunity to address our scientific, societal and economic challenges through genuine partnership. We should use it wisely,” he stated.

A summit statement released on Friday 18 February said that EU and AU leaders had committed to a Joint Vision for a renewed partnership to build a common future, as partners and neighbours.

It is underwritten by the Africa-Europe Investment Package of at least €150 billion, composed of investment, and health and education packages.

In the area of education, the statement said: “Together, we will step up our support to scientific cooperation between researchers to develop knowledge together, as well as sharing technology and expertise, including through a joint AU-EU Innovation Agenda.

“We will encourage exchanges of young citizens, volunteers and students, through the expanded Erasmus+ programme and develop partnerships between universities, in order to improve our mutual understanding and foster excellence.”

To help address learning gaps resulting from the pandemic, opportunities for professional vocational education and training will be promoted, including at regional level.

Science and the AU-EU relationship

A meeting of European and African foreign ministers in Rwanda’s capital Kigali last October highlighted the needs to tackle Africa’s pandemic preparedness and its economic impacts and, among other areas, the need to increase African research and innovation, education and skills.

“The growing importance of science and innovation to the AU-EU relationship has already become apparent in practice,” said Palmowski. Horizon Europe’s Africa Initiative has a €350 million, two-year budget for cooperative research and innovation with Africa, and collaboration with Africa is prioritised in the new Erasmus+ academic mobility programme.

The Innovation Agenda “thus builds on a growing momentum for science. At the same time, it is a truly transformative document, representing changes of tone and approach that are remarkable.” The agenda’s approach is long term, it stresses equity – such as the need to reverse the brain drain of African scientists – and focuses on improving research infrastructure.

“In this vein, it also proposes an inclusive approach to infrastructure access in both continents, facilitating movement in both directions.”

The AU-EU Innovation Agenda

The AU-EU Innovation Agenda, agreed by senior AU and EU officials on 27 January, was published last Monday, 14 February, as a working document and will be refined and approved.

It describes strengthening research cooperation between the continents as “a key priority, as R&I contributes to enhancing sustainable and inclusive economic growth and job generation, thereby reducing poverty and inequalities”.

The ministers referred to the “enormous growth potential” of innovation ecosystems in both Africa and Europe, which are also rapidly expanding. Strategies should be directed towards creating or strengthening innovation ecosystems to become more efficient and targeted.

“The new paradigm of AU-EU research and innovation cooperation is that of creating tangible impact on the ground from the research jointly invested in,” the Innovation Agenda says. Collaboration will need to include AU and EU institutions as well as countries and a range of stakeholders, such as the private sector, and research and higher education institutions.

The Agenda proposes specific short- (within three years), medium- (three to six years) and long-term (six to 10 years) actions for the four priority areas of collaboration: public health, green transition, innovation and technology, and capacities for science.

In the short term, in the area of education, there will be support for research and innovation cooperation between AU and EU research organisations and companies. And support for technology or innovation hubs, networks, accelerators and incubators, to develop the human capital and skills pools for effective technology transfer and entrepreneurship.

There will also be short-term actions around strengthening cooperation between AU and EU higher education institutions, and research centres and organisations. Also, improving the transparency and recognition of higher education qualifications and the relevance of curricula, and fostering the development of high-performing digital education and skills upgrade systems.

One medium-term priority will be to increase the number of researchers and innovators freely moving among and between both areas, while limiting the risks of talent drain by promoting joint postgraduate degrees between AU and EU universities and supporting the inclusive mobility of students, researchers and staff.

In the area of innovation and technology, long-term actions include supporting inclusive and affordable access to world-class research and innovation infrastructures in both Europe and Africa, and ensuring that digital transformation supports the dissemination of knowledge.

‘Advanced study institutes’ will be established that support European and African researchers working together, and that help to bridge R&I between Europe and Africa. Actions will also modernise and reinforce research and higher education systems on both continents, which must be “based on excellence, high quality, inclusiveness, openness, transparency and merit”.

Concluding thoughts

Palmowski said that a centrepiece of the agenda is the development of the advanced study institutes – along the lines of the African centres of excellence supported by the World Bank and others – that will bring together European and African researchers and create or build on postgraduate and postdoctoral programmes.

“In short, this proposed AU-EU Innovation Agenda is strong on ambition, clear in its analysis and rich in potential. It is a ground-breaking document because the EU, for instance, is moderating its own ambitions for scientific leadership with proposals for genuine partnership and sharing.

“Europe is pledging to avoid poaching talent from Africa and instead to identify ways to build it up, to mutual, long-term benefit.”