Africa Analysis: Three key science issues of 2013

Action speaks louder
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Speed read

  • A plan for advancing science in Africa is to be presented in January 2014
  • The establishment of IBM’s first research lab in Africa is a major boost to IT
  • But the decline in global health R&D funding could decrease research capacity

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This time of year, it is always good to take a step back and reflect on the past twelve months. Where are we now, compared to a year ago? And what does the future hold?
In this article, I have chosen to highlight three developments that I believe were significant not just for African science in 2013, but also for the future of research and development on the continent.
These are the development of a new continental plan for science, the opening of the first IBM laboratory in Africa and the persistent downturn in global health research funding.

“The message for African governments is clear — if they want to keep their health research capacity, and improve it going forward, they need to look for ways to support researchers as competition for international funding hardens.”

Linda Nordling

A new plan for Africa

Over the past 18 months African policymakers and researchers have been busy drawing up a new 10-year plan for African science, technology and innovation.
The Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) is now nearing completion, and is due to be presented to, and adopted by, the annual presidential African Union summit in January 2014.
STISA will replace the Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (CPA), which has guided continental policymaking since 2005.
But where the CPA mainly drew up plans for building capacity in African research and development (R&D) — by creating regional networks of researchers and setting targets for research spending on the continent — STISA aims to put science to work.
STISA responds to the single most common criticism levelled at the CPA — namely that it neglected to make the connection between science, society, entrepreneurship and policy.
STISA does not see science, technology and innovation as an end in itself. Rather, it advocates its use as a ‘tool’— in particular in the development of African infrastructure such as roads and power stations, as well as promoting entrepreneurship in African business.
The new plan looks very good on paper. But it must be said that these types of policies are notoriously difficult to implement in the real world. A lot of buy-ins from a cross-section of African politicians, businesses, educational institutions and donors will be crucial to its realisation by 2024.
Choosing African brains
Another significant development of 2013 was the establishment of IBM’s first research lab in Africa. The facility formally opened in Nairobi, Kenya, in November to great media fanfare in both the local and international press.
The significance of this investment lies in the selection of the lab’s location — Kenya — as well as in the research focus of the centre: information technology (IT).
Kenya famously pioneered mobile banking with its M-Pesa system. IBM’s decision is a vote of confidence both for Kenyan IT entrepreneurship as well as for confidence in East Africa as a market for new technology products.
Already, the laboratory is trialling a mobile app that can help users avoid congested routes though Nairobi’s legendary traffic jams. It is also developing digital advertising solutions for small Kenyan businesses.
The business- and market-oriented activities at the IBM laboratory in Kenya offers a welcome change of tune from foreign investments in Africa, many of which are characterised as ‘gifts’ or ‘help’.
This highlighting of the opportunities related to emerging economies, rather than the problems related to illness or poverty, is hopefully something we’ll see more of as African economies grow.
Health troubles
A much more dispiriting trend is the continuing decline in global health research funding.
It’s not a new trend. In 2011, there was widespread concern as global HIV/AIDS R&D funding dropped as the global financial crisis took a bite out of public spending.
The following year saw the first year-on-year decline in tuberculosis (TB) R&D since 2005, according to a report published in October this year by the Treatment Action Group, a non-profit lobby group for better treatment for HIV/AIDS and TB [1]. The culprit was cutbacks by the private pharmaceutical sector.
And one of the world’s biggest health R&D funders — the United States government —docked the budget of its National Institutes of Health (NIH) this year by US$1.5 billion. The funding cut saw NIH grant-winner success rates drop to a historic low of 16 per cent, the organisation reported in May [2].
These spending drops will hit Africa in two ways. Firstly, it will make it harder for Africa’s medical researchers, many of whom depend on grants from NIH and other international bodies, to keep their programmes going.
Secondly, and perhaps more disturbingly, a drop in global health funding will inevitably lead to a slowing in the development of new drugs, treatments and diagnostic methods that Africa sorely needs to address its heavy disease burden.
A silver lining came on 3 December when donors pledged an extra US$12 billion to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for the next three years — although research will probably be dwarfed by treatment programmes in the allocation of this windfall.
The message for African governments is clear — if they want to keep their health research capacity, and improve it going forward, they need to look for ways to support researchers as competition for international funding hardens.
Linda Nording
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.


[1] Frick M. and Jiménez-Levi, E. 2013 Report on Tuberculosis Research Funding Trends, 2005–2012 (Treatment Action Group, November 2013). 
[2] The Center for Scientific Review. Keeping NIH Peer Review Robust in Difficult Times (CSR, May 2013)