Call for long-term Africa-EU STI cooperation framework

Universities and research organisations across Africa and Europe have called for a new science, technology and innovation (STI) framework for cooperation between the two continents to drive sustainable development. They say it should be grounded in academic excellence, sustainability, capacity-building and scalability.

Towards that objective, dozens of leading universities and research institutions jointly with a plethora of regional and global university and research networks on 1 June issued a call for action for the establishment of an integrated Africa-EU Science, Technology and Innovation Programme for the period running between 2023 and 2027 by the African Union and the European Union, in alliance with African and European countries.

The appeal was made ahead of the meeting of the African Union and European Union partnership that will be attended by research ministers on June 13 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

It stresses the need to strengthen African research systems by supporting excellent African researchers, AU-EU centres of excellence, and research and innovation infrastructures.

“Today, Africa and Europe have a unique opportunity to lead the way on rethinking how science can support sustainable development at local and international levels,” the text says.

Some of the key signatories behind the joint memorandum include the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild) and the Association of African Universities (AAU).

But the list of signatories also includes the German Rectors’ Conference, the Slovak Rectors’ Conference, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, the Flemish Interuniversity Council and the Association of Francophone Universities, or the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), which has more than 1,000 member institutions worldwide.

Among the research organisations that signed the petition were the African Academy of Sciences, and the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, or Icipe.

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa, the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, and the University of Ostrava, both in Czech Republic, and University College Cork in Ireland were some of the universities that gave their support.

Strengthening cooperation

According to Elisa Collomp, the communications officer at The Guild, the Addis Ababa ministerial summit is expected to adopt the final version of the AU-EU Innovation Agenda, a funding instrument that will strengthen research cooperation between Africa and Europe.

In effect, the AU-EU Innovation Agenda was developed last year by an AU-EU specialised taskforce with the aim of closing Africa’s gaps in five areas: innovation ecosystem; innovation management; knowledge exchange, including technology transfer; access to finance; and human capacity development.

The call to action says the signatories’ universities and research organisations already have experience with initiatives aimed at boosting institutional capacities for science in Africa, and calls for this collective experience are to be used to develop a new AU-EU model for institutional partnerships in science.

What Centres of Excellence should aim for

The call says the AU-EU Centres of Excellence should aim to:

• Integrate universities and research organisations across Africa and Europe;

• Perform excellent collaborative research and boost this research capacity through training programmes, in particular joint doctoral schools, to train the next generation of African researchers, technicians and experts – with a special attention to promoting a gender balance in the graduate cohorts;

• Encourage the mobility of research staff and graduate students across the partner institutions to develop their scientific potential – in particular, female students and researchers – and form a firm international network, including across Africa;

• Develop – depending on the Centres’ thematic focus – close relations with local, national, and regional governments in Africa and Europe, as well as the private and civil society sectors, to facilitate the uptake of science for policy and socio-economic developments; and

• Become a focal point for investments in research infrastructures.

To be transformative and sustainable, the signatories urge that any funding for the AU-EU Centres of Excellence is awarded through an open competition based on:

• Research excellence in one of the four areas defined in the AU-EU Innovation Agenda (public health, green transition, innovation and technology, and capacities for science);

• Long-term vision;

• Capacity-building (including joint training programmes and doctoral schools); and

• Inclusiveness (geographical and sectoral).

They say the primary beneficiaries of the AU-EU Centres of Excellence should be African universities and research organisations.

They add that the embedded partnership with European institutions of each centre will contribute to fostering African institutions’ success rate in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, and the excellence component will contribute to building a pool of excellent researchers at all career stages, including for ARISE, in all parts of Africa. The African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE) is a programme aimed at supporting early-career African scientists in delivering groundbreaking research.

Infrastructure development a key driver

In addition, they say both the Global Gateway strategy and the AU-EU Innovation Agenda envision research infrastructure development as a key driver for the relations between Africa and Europe.

The current shortage of appropriate equipment, laboratories and buildings at African universities and research organisations slows down the development of scientific knowledge, reinforces dependence mechanisms to infrastructures in the Global North, and fosters brain drain.

The call says that, if Africa and Europe want to strengthen their relations with equity and quality as principles for investment and cooperation, the Africa-EU STI Programme should, therefore, also include a transversal dimension aimed at supporting research and innovation infrastructures at African universities and research organisations.

“All efforts aiming to develop professional opportunities for African researchers and strengthen the African science base are doomed to fail if no investments are made at the same time in strong and well-maintained research infrastructures on the continent,” they warn.

According to Jan Palmowski, the secretary-general of The Guild, the African Union’s Africa 2063 strategy puts knowledge at the heart of the new vision. “Through the Africa-EU STI Programme we can make a transformative beginning, ensuring that we invest in excellent research, long-term collaboration, and sustainable research infrastructure,” said Palmowski.

Ernest Aryeetey, the secretary-general of ARUA, highlighted how his organisation and The Guild were working together to promote the development of strong collaboration between African and European researchers.

“In this regard, the proposed Africa-EU Science, Technology and Innovation Programme has the potential to support the transformation of science in Africa and a better understanding of Africa in Europe,” said Aryeetey.

Slim Khalbous, the rector of AUF, said long-term cooperation between Africa and Europe is a step of the utmost importance to foster a global strategy based on a win-win approach. “In the past 60 years, AUF has been promoting numerous education and research cooperation programmes in Africa and we hope to continue with that mandate which endorses a multilevel convergence between Africa and Europe,” said Khalbous.

In her comments, Dr Segenet Kelemu, the Icipe director-general, said science is crucial for all continents to sustain or meet their growth aspirations, especially creating job prospects for the youth, ensuring food security, conserving biodiversity, building resilience to climate change, and delivering global health. “We see the initiative as a partnership that will promote science and research for development that is mutually beneficial for Africa and Europe,” said Kelemu.

Dr Robin Drennan, the director for research development at Wits, pointed out that there is need for establishing initiatives that could promote the sustainable development of Africa and Europe.

“We commend the EU’s commitment for its willingness to fund collaborative research that gives support to the African research community,” said Drennan.

According to Dr Peggy Oti-Boateng, the executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, the issue is that science, technology and innovation are crucial for sustainable development.

“Unlocking the innovative minds of young African men and women through science and technology is imperative for transforming the lives on the continent,” Oti-Boateng told University World News in an interview in Nairobi.

A communique from Europe’s Civic University Alliance (CIVIS), a consortium of 11 research universities in Europe and its six strategic partner universities in Africa, stated that there is enormous potential in European University alliances as platforms for bringing African and European universities into new, productive science relationships.

The six African universities allied to CIVIS are: Wits in South Africa, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, Makerere University in Uganda, Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal, Hassan II University of Casablanca in Morocco and Tunisia’s University of Sfax.

The call of action was also endorsed by Dr Jens-Peter Gaul, the secretary-general of the German Rectors’ Conference, a body that represents 270 universities and universities of applied sciences. “We would like to see substantial investments in the research capacity of African universities, and new efforts to realise the EU-AU Innovation Agenda are timely,’’ said Gaul.

The EU-AU Innovation Agenda, the initiative that the petitioners expect to establish the Africa-EU STI Programme, is embedded in the EU’s global approach to research and innovation which is Europe’s commitment to a global openness that is needed to drive excellence, pool resources to achieve scientific progress and develop vibrant innovation ecosystems.