Africa, Europe launch 17 joint Clusters of Research ExcellenceARUA) and the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (the Guild) have announced the launch of 17 joint Clusters of Research Excellence (CoRE), each co-led by universities from each continent.
By combining forces to tackle common societal challenges, the leading universities in Africa and Europe that are part of the CoRE initiative hope to transform “the nature of collaborative research, foregrounding equity as a precondition for excellent and impactful research”.
Each cluster “addresses a key societal challenge, framed by the Global Gateway’s AU-EU Innovation Agenda, in the context of local perspectives to ensure maximum scientific and societal impact,” the two bodies said in separate but identical statements on 19 June, following an ARUA-Guild summit held in Brussels, Belgium, earlier this month.
Earlier this week, ARUA and the Guild announced that the 17 clusters are grouped together in the four thematic areas that have been under discussion for some time: public health, the green transition, innovation and technology, and capacities for science. They say the initiative is characterised by a “commitment to societal transformation, as each cluster focuses on acute societal needs that require the urgent focus of research and innovation”.
Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence (CoRE)
The clusters were developed through a bottom-up approach over the past six months “as researchers identified and formulated interdisciplinary visions in response to the pressing needs of our societies”, ARUA and the Guild said, adding that the initiative shows “long-term commitment from researchers, underwritten by long-term institutional support”.
Peter Maassen, a professor in higher education studies at the University of Oslo in Norway, told University World News in April that, in a concept note by ARUA and the Guild in 2020, the case was made for major investments in African universities’ research and innovation capacity. Specifically, the note called for investing in clusters of excellence, built on sustainable long-term alliances of African research universities and collaboration with European university networks.
Last year, also at a summit in Brussels, the European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) agreed on a Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package aimed at supporting Africa to achieve strong, inclusive, green and digital recovery and transformation.
New research paradigms
This week, ARUA and the Guild announced that their Africa-Europe CoRE initiative would develop “new research paradigms and transform our joint capacities to overcome major health challenges, address climate change, strengthen our technological transformations and sustain our societies facing conflict and change”.
They said the collaborative nature of the initiative addresses “the inequity that has characterised research in relation to Africa” so far, “to the detriment of global science”.
In particular, the new approach is distinguished by “equity, as a precondition for producing outstanding research with maximum societal impact” and “inclusiveness, as the clusters bring together researchers from universities and research institutes from across Europe and Africa, far beyond ARUA and the Guild”.
Jan Palmowski, the secretary-general of the Guild, said “the leaders of the AU and the EU have identified research and education as a key part of the strategic relationship between both continents”, and that the 17 clusters would “make a major contribution to this vision becoming a reality”.
Ernest Aryeetey, the secretary-general of ARUA, said the clusters “have been developed on the basis of trust and shared values between African and European researchers”.
Shortly after the announcement by ARUA and the Guild, several of their member institutions participating in the CoRE initiative issued media releases of their own.
In South Africa, this included Stellenbosch University (SU) and the University of Cape Town (UCT), which have each been appointed to co-lead four clusters.
The country has an additional three universities participating in the initiative as cluster co-leads – Rhodes University, the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits.
Professor Sibusiso Moyo, SU’s deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies, said that the initiative would “assist SU and its partners to leverage a number of potential resources as well as contribute to much-needed skills training within the continent”.
Professor Sue Harrison, UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation, said the clusters “are important platforms through which our researchers can contribute to societal impact in both Africa and Europe”.
In its release, the University of Ghana called the Africa-Europe CoRE initiative “a significant milestone”. It will co-lead two of the 17 clusters.
Other African universities participating as co-leads are the University of Nairobi (Kenya), the University Cheikh Anta Diop (Senegal), the University of Ibadan (Nigeria), Makerere University (Uganda) and Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia).
In the UK, King’s College London expressed the hope that the clusters will “establish a new model of research collaboration between the continents and provide a benchmark for future innovation and partnerships in scientific study”.
And the University of Glasgow said the initiative embodies its “commitment to equitable and impactful collaboration and desire to tackle real-world global challenges”.
The UK’s Warwick University is also a co-lead. Other European institutions participating in the same capacity are the universities of Tubingen (Germany), Uppsala (Sweden), Bern (Switzerland), Oslo (Norway), Paris Cité (France), Jagiellonian (Poland), UCLouvain and Ghent (Belgium), Radboud and Groningen (The Netherlands), Bologna (Spain) and Ljubljana (Slovenia).
The question of ‘capacity-building’
In their statement, ARUA and the Guild said the CoRE initiative represents a “commitment to transforming Africa’s capacity for knowledge production, with a particular focus on young researchers (including masters and PhD students), ensuring they are embedded in global scientific networks, and giving them the best possible opportunities to contribute to global science in Africa”.
The initiative is also aimed at “capacity-building in high-level research infrastructures open to all who need it, and to seek a coalition of funders to achieve this aim”.
Asked for his response to this week’s announcement, Jonathan Jansen, distinguished professor of education at SU, said: “Any injection of massive research funds from the Global North into southern research, and African research, in particular, is to be commended.
“I worry, though, about the persistent and nagging themes of ‘capacity-building’ and ‘development’ that have not shifted after decades of post-colonial detachment in Africa. Who, exactly, does the capacity-building, and for whom? Does Europe not also need capacity? What about research centres of excellence across the African continent that led the way on everything from variant discoveries to vaccine development?"
In their statement, ARUA and the Guild said the clusters were “formed in the context of a clear and unequivocal support in the research and innovation sector, in Europe and Africa, to develop science collaboration equitably and sustainably, and the urgent demand to funders like the EU to develop a more integrated approach that focuses on excellence and capacity-building”.
The two bodies, AURA and the Guild, were formed separately in 2016. ARUA has 16 members and the Guild 21. ARUA “aims to enhance research and graduate training in member universities through a number of channels” and to “address key challenges of Africa’s sustainable development”. The Guild “is committed to the pursuit of excellence, the importance of truth-seeking and trust-building as the foundation of public life, and the creation of new knowledge for the benefit of society, culture, and economic growth”.
University World News reported previously that the initiative could be traced back to negotiations since 2018 about a new kind of strategic collaboration agreement between the AU and the EU. In 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her first trip abroad to call on the AU at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she spoke of a “true partnership of equals” instead of a “relationship based on development aid”.
“The AU-EU Innovation Agenda is a game changer because of its ambition to create equitable university partnerships in an unequal world,” Maassen said previously, highlighting several novel elements.
“What’s new is the emphasis on using scientific excellence to reduce scientific inequality. There’s also a shift away from unilateral and bilateral partnerships between African and European institutions to multilateral university collaboration through strategic alliances with a clear scientific profile.”
The Clusters of Research Excellence set up by ARUA and the Guild entail collaboration between multiple African and European universities, working together on the basis of equality and “long-term commitment from researchers, underwritten by long-term institutional support”.
“The idea with these clusters is that all the partners involved will work at the forefront of knowledge development – for instance, on renewable energy, which is a global challenge,” Maassen said previously.