VCs from Africa, Europe discuss building scientific capacity

Vice-chancellors and university presidents from more than 30 universities across Africa and Europe met for the first summit between the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities early in November.

Both networks have collaborated closely in the development of a common science agenda since 2018. Together, they advanced the argument that there is an urgent global need to invest in the capacity of African science. And that, to do this, we need long-term capacity-building through training, collaboration, and infrastructure investment.

These concerns were echoed by the European Union-African Union (EU-AU) summit in Brussels last February (2022), where science was foregrounded as a key component of a new strategic partnership between the AU and the EU.

At the heart of this commitment stands the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda. This sets out a long-term vision to boost the capacity of African science through long-term collaboration (within Africa as well as between Africa and Europe), avoiding brain drain through new research masters and doctoral programmes, and long-term investment in African research infrastructures.

A common vision

Against this background, the ARUA-Guild summit articulated a common vision for achieving long-term science collaboration, through creating joint Clusters of Excellence involving a number of universities from both continents, addressing common challenges.

These clusters would need to be grounded on the bottom-up collaboration between researchers. But they also require an institutional commitment by the university leadership to provide the necessary long-term institutional support to enable researchers to succeed in their long-term collaboration.

Integral to the joint vision vice-chancellors developed is not only a resolve to capitalise on existing funding opportunities, but also a commitment to develop joint masters and doctoral training programmes, to strengthen the skills and global networks of a new generation of researchers in Africa.

At the summit in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3-4 November, university leaders were clear that any future collaborative clusters could not be about business as usual. Clusters have to be grounded in the principle of equity, including the need to ensure African researchers are prominently integrated in knowledge production and dissemination.

And, as researchers address common challenges together, the impacts of collaboration will have to go far beyond the science produced in the clusters, through how they inspire students, policymakers and wider society alike. The clusters have to change the future and inspire the present.

In articulating a joint vision framed by the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda, the Guild-ARUA meeting affirmed not just the Innovation Agenda’s potential. University leaders also identified key challenges that must be addressed if the agenda is to become a cornerstone of EU-AU relations.

How to make collaboration more impactful

One key concern to the sector, as well as to policymakers, is how collaboration and the capacity building of African science can be more impactful than before.

If the AU-EU Innovation Agenda simply supports business as usual, it may be a nice to have – but it won’t be fit-for-purpose as a cornerstone for a political vision bringing together two continents.

And, indeed, the Innovation Agenda does articulate a new, transformative long-term vision.

But putting this into practice must challenge all – universities, research performing organisations and innovators, as well as policymakers.

Translating the Innovation Agenda’s transformative vision into practice will need ingenuity, energy and a willingness to take risks.

These risks should not be taken blind. Better, more impactful ways to do science through the agenda need be measured and documented, so that shortcomings can be detected, and successes demonstrated.

In particular, the AU-EU Innovation Agenda must develop appropriate funding instruments to support its long-term vision.

At the meeting, university leaders from ARUA and The Guild appreciated the significant opportunities for funding that already existed for collaboration, for instance through the Africa Initiative for Horizon Europe, and Erasmus+.

However, these instruments were not designed for the Innovation Agenda’s specific goals of long-term capacity-building and the circulation of talent between both continents.

The agenda needs to identify funding to enable scientists to address the common challenges it identifies. It must support the sector to develop (and implement) new initiatives for scientific impact – through better education, science and innovation.

Enhancing science infrastructure

Finally, an important part of the Innovation Agenda relates to enhancing African access to world-class infrastructure.

European experience in developing shared infrastructures has been successful, but it has been a success over time. This experience can inform the creation of enhanced research infrastructures in Africa.

But it can only do so as part of a more comprehensive discussion about the research infrastructure needs that are most urgent in different parts of the continent. How can these best be met and how can investments be sustained and shared?

Based on the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda, we need to develop a comprehensive strategy of research infrastructure investment in Africa.

In creating joint Clusters of Excellence, University leaders at Cape Town addressed an urgent need for Africa and Europe to create new ways of delivering the scientific capacity that lies at the heart of the AU-EU strategic relationship.

These clusters form a critical early contribution towards a shared ownership of a new, transcontinental science agenda based on equity and mutuality, between policymakers, universities and other research performing institutions.

And this shared ownership will be developed further by a dialogue between policymakers and stakeholders across Africa and Europe in the AU-EU Innovation Agenda Stakeholder in Nairobi (and online) on 23-24 November.

Professor Ernest Aryeetey is the secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance. ARUA is a network of 16 selected flagship research universities in Africa with a common vision to expand and significantly enhance the quality of research carried out by African researchers. The network has been operational since March 2015, when it was inaugurated in Dakar, Senegal. Professor Jan Palmowski is the secretary-general of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, which has 21 members.