Equity in research collaboration: From vision to practice
Across the Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence (CoRE), involving partners outside and inside our two networks (including NGOs, companies and research institutes), we will address key challenges in public health, climate change, technological transformations (such as artificial intelligence) and societal transformations.
Hundreds of researchers, backed by the long-term commitment of dozens of institutions across both continents, are setting out to resolve key questions that require the equitable collaboration of scientists across Africa and Europe. What has sparked the depth and scale of this ambition in The Guild?
First, we identified the opportunity. This came with higher education scholar Peter Maassen’s Insight Paper on developing a new collaboration strategy between European and African universities, based on the observation that, at under 5%, the African share of global science production was too small.
If it were to grow substantially, we needed a fundamental change of approach. Maassen’s ideas were based on work undertaken with a number of colleagues at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, particularly Nico Cloete and Francois van Schalkwyk.
His work also reflected discussions within The Guild on the limits of existing collaboration models.
Researchers and research support staff underlined the value of conventional third-party funding for important research collaboration to take place. But such funding rarely allowed research capacity to be built up for the long term, beyond the end of the funding period.
Colleagues with experience of building up sustainable, equitable partnerships highlighted the need for a long-term commitment, and a culture of listening to each other. It required extensive dialogues to articulate needs and opportunities for all collaborative partners, and only then to work with policy-makers and funders to address these.
The political moment
Second, we identified a particular political moment. First discussions in The Guild started in 2018, at a time when a European policy discourse was widely dominated by the issue of migration and displacement to Europe, and how this should be limited. The urgency to replace this discourse with a positive strategy for Europe’s most important neighbouring continent was clear.
In late 2019, European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recognised the need to reshape relations through her first overseas trip, to Addis Ababa, within a week of being elected into her role.
While vaccine inequality during the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic created significant tensions between the two blocs, it also highlighted the role of science at the epicentre of the relationship, and its key role in addressing common challenges.
The goal of equitable science relations was articulated in the draft African Union-European Union (AU-EU) Innovation Agenda, which was endorsed by political leaders at the EU-AU summit of 2022.
By that time, science had become integral to the AU’s strategy to realise the African knowledge society by 2063. It had also become a cornerstone of the EU’s international strategy, the Global Gateway.
The political moment for equitable collaborations, science and innovation to inject a new dynamism between the two continents had arrived.
Third, we recognised our interdependence. If we are serious about science fostering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, we cannot do it on our own. We need partners in Africa to address our common societal challenges.
Between 1990 and 2019 research on Africa received only 3.8% of climate-related research funds globally, of which 78% went to institutions located in the US, EU and UK.
And yet, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been clear about the requirement for local actors to develop effective local responses and adaptations to climate change.
This is a global concern that cannot be addressed for as long as Africa is insufficiently able to set its own research agendas. Similarly, even though a vast majority of human genetic diversity is located on the African continent, fewer than 2% of all indexed genomes are African.
This limits the effectiveness of treatment for genetic disorders on the African continent, and our capacities in public health more generally, given the mobility of populations. The inequity of science impairs our ability to address our common SDGs, and hampers scientific excellence.
The recognition of the opportunity, the political moment, and the needs of science and society, led to our desire to develop, with ARUA, a set of recommendations about the need for funding instruments to enhance excellence and foster capacity-building through collaboration between Africa and Europe.
What we in The Guild and ARUA could see was shared by others. For instance, 20 European rectors’ conferences representing more than a thousand universities in Europe united, to demand new, equitable partnerships as the hallmark of European-African Science relations.
The question now is no longer whether the sector supports the AU’s and EU’s new approach towards developing long-term excellence-based science collaborations.
From vision to reality
In June 2023, organisations representing over 2,000 research-performing organisations urged the implementation of the equitable science agenda through a funding instrument that brings together the core aspects of the Innovation Agenda, namely the focus on the scientific excellence of researchers and research teams (for instance, through a continuation and strengthening of ARISE (the African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence Programme), in support of early- and mid-career researchers, funding for Centres of Excellence committed to strengthening Africa’s scientific output sustainably and equitably, through African-European collaboration; funding to create world-class research infrastructure in Africa, open to all who need it.
The key challenge now is how we turn the vision into reality.
Through the creation of the Clusters of Research Excellence, ARUA and The Guild make their contribution to making equitable partnerships happen. The clusters would come with long-term institutional commitment of support, but at their creation they did not yet have any external funding secured.
After all, a core part of the vision was that researchers – not funders – should be in the driving seat of identifying the challenges where African and European research could make the strongest contribution to science – locally embedded, globally excellent. Only once the thematic areas, research questions and scientific vision had been identified could the search for suitable external funding begin, through sustained dialogues with policy-makers, and applications to funders.
The response of researchers, and their willingness to lead in this transformation of science collaboration between Africa and Europe, has been extraordinary, as has been the commitment from researchers and some institutions from outside our networks to become part of our pioneering initiative.
In the road ahead, our researchers will need external funding to work together, and they need to make sure that different funding instruments are integrated and inclusive across their clusters.
In doing so, they will need to learn what it means in practice to be equitable – between and across both continents. This will often be immensely hard, as the parameters of third-party research funding often mitigates against equity.
And they will need to integrate excellent research with capacity-building in human resources (including ambitious, inclusive, locally rooted but globally networked PhD programmes) and investment in research infrastructures. And the challenges, for instance, of scaling up joint, world-class PhD training, are substantial.
Success, then, will lie in the CoREs’ capacity to do better science, while at the same time developing new models for equity, in persuading funders and policy-makers to invest in a common, transcontinental approach maximising scientific and societal impact.
In doing so, we aim to inspire others to join us, towards a sector-wide change towards equitable collaboration in research and innovation.
Through these direct and indirect effects, our clusters will make a transformative contribution to Europe’s Global Gateway, across all its five pillars. And they will become indispensable to Africa’s transformation towards a knowledge society by 2063.
Jan Palmowski is The Guild lead on Africa-Europe Clusters of Research Excellence, and the secretary-general of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (on sabbatical leave 2023-24).