Feature: Platform for research - African Institutions Initiative
3 July 2009. By Mun-Keat Looi
Africa is home to 11 per cent of the world's population and the focus of many research questions, from neglected tropical diseases to the continuing burden of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and new issues arising from the pace (or lack) of development in some countries. Yet the continent accounts for just 0.3 per cent of the world's research output.
African countries need a mass of talented local researchers - and an infrastructure to support them. The Wellcome Trust's African Institutions Initiative is providing a platform for this. The £30 million Initiative is funding seven African-led international consortia - involving over 50 scientific institutions from 18 African countries - to strengthen research capacity and develop scientific leadership for the region.
The scientists heading the consortia speak about the challenges facing African researchers and how they are tackling them.
Image: Countries and consortia in the African Institutions Initiative
Southern Africa Consortium for Research Excellence (SACORE)
Director: Dr Newton Kumwenda, Malawi College of Medicine
"The challenges to research in Africa are mostly the lack of resources and infrastructure. Local funding is inadequate, as are the number of qualified researchers able to provide training and leadership. There are also problems with internet connectivity, research administration and getting proper laboratory facilities and equipment.
"Yet the major obstacle we face is probably the prevailing limited understanding about scientific research and its benefits. Science is a profession and a long-term commitment, and its returns are not always dramatic, nor immediate.
"We have put in place programmes that will address the way the public and government officials view about research, while creating a more conducive environment for researchers. For example, our Research Support Centres are intended to be the focal points for coordination and management of biomedical research, facilitating the training and conduct of research, as well as helping support staff to manage grants on behalf of the scientists. We also plan SACORE sabbaticals that will allow young scientists, who may have just completed their higher degree training, to get individual tailored supervision and mentorship from established scientists at partner institutions.
We hope SACORE will help create a critical mass of qualified research scientists, with a clear career pathway as well as strong research leadership and support systems, contributing to a vibrant and sustainable research culture in southern Africa."
Research Institute for Infectious Diseases of Poverty (IIDP)
Director: Dr Margaret Gyapong, Director, Dodowa Health Research Centre, Ghana Health Service
"Africa is losing many of its best scientists to the brain drain, partly because of the absence of coordinated institutional strategies and national research environments that enable research. We suffer from poor integration of knowledge across disciplines, and a lack of consistent engagement with policy makers, users and community beneficiaries.
"IIDP is an interdisciplinary consortium. We hope to bring together researchers from the social sciences, public health, epidemiology and laboratory sciences to form a single network. We will strengthen institutions with training programmes and physical infrastructure support (such as equipment and telecommunications), enabling them to respond to and engage in locally relevant, policy-driven research.
"Our shared vision is for sustained training and retention of world-class public health research leaders in a vibrant research environment, with shared ownership of activities, enabling us to address the challenges of infectious diseases of poverty in West Africa."
Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA)
Director: Dr Alex Ezeh, African Population and Health Research Centre, Kenya
"CARTA's first aim is to create a new generation of African scholars who know each other and will work together across national and disciplinary boundaries. By training people in African-based institutions, and bringing them together on a regular basis for intense advanced seminars, we can create a practical mechanism for universities to work together.
"We are also looking to change university systems to place a greater emphasis on research and to help them to understand the need to provide doctoral students with the guidance and transferable skills that will prepare them for academic positions. African universities are burdened with growing undergraduate programmes and budget cuts, and graduate training is suffering in terms of number and quality of graduates.
"We are creating training programmes to provide PhD students with mentorship from partner universities, as well as their own, and more time to do research. Our Joint Advanced Seminar Series will introduce skills such as critical thinking, data analysis, literature reading, writing skills and management - all of which can enhance research. Many universities, including those in the North, do not have courses for these - people pick them up through their interactions with other more senior researchers, at regular seminars or at conferences. But these skills are what encourage scholars to think about how to manage and conceptualise research; they provide ways of challenging people to think outside of the box.
Our third aim is to create opportunities for non-scientific staff - librarians, financial managers, academic administrators - to interact with each other, exchange ideas and learn about innovations in their field. If you create a training programme for support staff, you can begin to create a regional movement where people and universities can support each other and their researchers. So when we have created a critical mass of high-quality scientists across the region, their universities will also have developed the incentives and support infrastructure to help keep them."
One Health Initiative - African Research Consortium for Ecosystem and Population Health
Director: Professor Bassirou Bonfoh, Swiss Centre for Scientific Research, Côte d'Ivoire
"Research in public and veterinary epidemiology increasingly demands quantitative and interdisciplinary skills that are difficult to acquire without a broad network of collaboration, and this is lacking in the public and animal health domains. It demands effective partnerships, sharing of resources such as laboratory facilities, and exchange programmes among African institutions.
"The 'one health' concept offers a unique opportunity to develop this. Our Consortium will provide facilities and career development opportunities for the most promising young post doctoral scientists. We will establish well-supported post doctoral research fellowships, increased post doctoral training opportunities, academic support for lecturers to develop their own independent research projects, and small equipment grants. We are also setting up lecturer 'buy-outs' - short-term grants that will allow post-doctoral scientists to take up to six months out of their teaching time to visit a different research institution and develop their own research proposals.
"We hope to achieve a critical mass of independent, internationally competitive research groups led by African scientists working in African universities and research institutions. Each institution has specific strengths in zoonotic diseases and together we will create tighter links between science and policy, and East and West African expertise to better address ecosystem and population health while bridging language and geographic gaps."
One Medicine Africa-UK Research Capacity Development Partnership Programme for Infectious Diseases in Southern Africa (SACIDS)
Director: Professor Mark Rweyemamu, Sokione University of Agriculture, Tanzania
"Infectious diseases are increasingly a shared problem between human and animal health - over 50 per cent of human infectious diseases and 75-80 per cent of emerging infectious diseases originate from animals. Both sectors are underpinned by a common science and by shared technologies, yet there is often little collaboration at the research level between human and animal health sectors. Moreover, there is an inefficient use of the few available resources in Africa, with individuals working in isolation and inadequate collaboration between academic and governmental establishments.
"The most cost-effective approach for addressing Africa’s infectious disease burden is to foster research collaboration between institutions and sectors. This is the 'One Medicine' framework that drives our consortium.
"SACIDS will produce postdoctoral fellows, PhD and MSc students, increasing human resource capacity. Their research activities will evolve around defined themes such as tuberculosis and haemorrhagic fevers and through this the institutions involved will develop recognised expertise in those themes. We hope that this will encourage collaborative, thematic research, generating a cadre of scientists focused on research rather than administration."
Strengthening Research Capacity in Environmental Health (SNOWS)
Director: Professor Esi Awuah, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana
"Water and sanitation research is an interdisciplinary field defined by human needs. It encompasses engineering, economics (is sewerage really too expensive for Africa?), epidemiology (do pit latrines prevent diarrhoea?), environmental sciences (what are the implications of climate change for rural water supplies?) and psychology (how to persuade people to wash their hands with soap?).
"But aspiring water and sanitation researchers suffer from a global shortage of research funding. It is not considered cutting-edge science by the bodies that fund research in engineering or health. Add to this the more general problems in African research, such as the wariness of funding African universities and the shortage of good supervisors. Moreover, many of the relevant university departments don't have a tradition of research - most of the African staff in this field have little research training or experience, or indeed the funds to carry out research.
"SNOWS is developing a programme of short courses on both technical subjects and research methods for our academic staff, as well as training courses on administrative issues for staff who will have to manage grants and administer resources for research activities. These are designed to promote the exchange of experiences between various African universities, between African and Northern universities, and between academics and practitioners in government agencies, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector."
Training Health Researchers into Vocational Excellence in East Africa (THRiVE)
Director: Professor Nelson Sewankambo, Makerere University, Uganda
"In Africa, we are not attracting and not retaining enough talented individuals to allow us to expand our pool of high-class scientists. This is in part due to an environment that is not ideal for stimulating and supporting trainees at the highest level, with few mentors and inadequate research infrastructure. Moreover, there is inadequate funding to facilitate the research from which trainees learn.
"Our consortium aims to empower institutions to build a critical mass of well-trained researchers capable of winning competitive grants, augmented with a conducive research environment with improved governance and management.
"THRiVE will recruit talented individuals, who will be supported and mentored at Master's, PhD and postdoctoral levels. We will also contribute to infrastructural development, such as improving information technology access - a critical part of capacity-building efforts as it gives staff and students access to electronic libraries, databases, video conferences, online discussions and research proposals.
"We hope our efforts will strengthen South-to-South collaborations including partnerships between the older, stronger universities and younger ones in post-conflict areas of Africa. With an increase in collaboration and partnership between universities and research institutes, our scientists will be better able to tackle Africa’s health research problems."
Image: Researcher at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kenya. Credit: Caroline Penn