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  • Scant funding for research facilities is hurting Africa

Donors must work with African countries to provide crucial science infrastructure, argues ST policy scholar Nicholas Michael Bashour.

African countries want and need financial support for research and innovation. Fortunately, there's plenty of money to go around in that regard. For example, the European Union provides more funding to the continent than it gives to Asia and Latin America combined and there is additional support from Australian, North American and UK research agencies.

As a result, Africa should have a thriving research community. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

This is reflected, in part, in brain drain figures. The painful exodus of skilled labour has averaged about 20,000 professionals a year since 1990. [1]

Various data also reveal the disappointing reality that Africa's contributions to the world's research and development (RD) remain very low totalling less than 1 per cent of global investment in RD and a mere 1.5 per cent of total scientific publications and has been so consistently over the past decade. [2, 3] The fact that output remains low despite a sustained and arguably rising availability of external funding over the years is cause for concern.

The central reason for the discrepancy between the availability of research funds and the small scale of African scientific output is the lack of adequate research infrastructure: laboratories, data processing centres, biobanks and other brick-and-mortar facilities needed for research, especially near universities.

Constantly injecting money into African research without prioritising investment in its wider scientific ecosystem by supporting infrastructure development is proving to be a short-sighted and limited solution for expanding Africa's role in global science and addressing the continent's economic and social concerns.

Re-evaluating priorities

In most African countries, support for research infrastructure lags far behind that for other types of infrastructure projects, such as transport, water and power. It is certainly politically and socially difficult to justify spending money on a research laboratory or a data centre at the expense of a water sanitation treatment plant, for example.

However, given the current substantial global investment in African science and the continent's growth potential, combined with its socioeconomic goals and the related benefits of RD, funding for research infrastructure should be expanded and placed on an equal footing with other development funding.

The lack of adequate research infrastructure has implications beyond research productivity. Science and technology (ST) collaboration and cooperation between Africa and other regions, including Europe and the United States, are affected by the absence of adequate infrastructure in Africa.

For the partnerships and collaborations that do exist between Africa and other countries, African scientists are at a disadvantage.

During the Promoting African European Research Infrastructure Partnerships workshop in London in October 2012, Zeinab Osman, director of the Institute for Technological Research at the National Center for Research in Sudan, noted that although she has access to external funding and sought-after biological samples in her home country, which allows her to build partnerships with interested institutions abroad, and despite her expertise and aspiration to conduct various research projects in Sudan, she is unable to do so simply because of inadequate research infrastructure.

Two-part solution

Her situation is too common in Africa, where highly qualified and well-trained scientists with connections to global research leaders, institutions and funds have limited ability to work because of a lack of an adequate research ecosystem.

So how can African countries build the necessary research infrastructure?

The appropriate solution has two dimensions: intra-African and international. On the intra-African side, African governments need to develop long-term strategic roadmaps for RD investment that include infrastructure development.

By doing so, they can demonstrate to the international community an actual commitment to science research, as opposed to a mere desire to increase RD capacities, making them a more attractive location for science investment and making them more likely to receive increased support for infrastructure development.

Such a strategy would also transform African countries from passive bystanders into responsible and proactive players in their own RD futures.

Internationally, the diplomatic community inside and outside Africa, together with scientists and researchers, needs to encourage donor governments and agencies that provide Africa with development assistance and science funding to allow for, and promote, the use of some of this money for research infrastructure development. Substantial investment in infrastructure should also be part of any continent-wide ST strategy.

Everybody's problem

This is by no means an easy task. Donor countries, especially EU member states and the United States, fundamentally oppose providing funds for research infrastructure development in Africa on the grounds that this is something that African countries should fund themselves.

However, the lack of research infrastructure in the continent is not solely African countries' problem. By working together with African governments to build infrastructure capacity, the international community can accomplish much more for Africa's future growth and role in global science in a much shorter timeframe than it would if this was left to African countries alone.

Research infrastructure drives and promotes international science collaboration and helps build stable and lasting international relationships. It creates concrete social and economic benefits and can even precipitate investment in traditional infrastructure. It should not take a back seat to other types of investment.

Nicholas Michael Bashour is a Fulbright-Schuman fellow in Brussels, Belgium, and currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for Research Information and Quality Assurance in Berlin, Germany. Nicholas can be contacted at nicholas.bashour@fulbrightmail.org

References

[1] Tebeje, A. Brain drain and capacity building in Africa (IDRC, accessed 2013)

[2]UNESCO Science Report (UNESCO, 2010)

[3]OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2012 (OECD, 2012)

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