US shutdown could deeply hurt African science

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  • US is a critical and substantial source of R&D funding in the world
  • Continued partial government shutdown in the US risky for African science
  • Shutdown could weaken other development partners and investment initiatives

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[CAPE TOWN] African science and research programmes may be at risk if the partial government shutdown in the US continues, experts working with US partners say.
They are saying that funding uncertainties could have long-term impact on the continent’s development.
“The US is one of the most critical and substantial sources of research and development funding in the world,” says Linda-Gail Bekker, chief operating officer of the Cape Town-based Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation.
“Just about all of our collaborations are with US academics and partners and most of our funding originates from the US. We are incurably dependent on a well-functioning USA,” she told SciDev.Net.
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation oversees international research programmes into HIV prevention, vaccine candidates, treatment delivery and adherence, and clinical trials. While they’ve not yet felt an impact from the shutdown, Bekker says it is a possibility if their National Institutes of Health counterparts are affected.
“Our medical officers can be called away for crucial work in the country, which would affect us as they guide progress and help manage our National Institutes of Health-funded sites. They are also integral to the running of clinical trials that may pose a safety risk,” she says.

“An immediate impact of the shutdown is the participation by scientists from these agencies in international collaborative projects and bodies.”

Mark New, African Climate and Development Institute

According to a spokesperson from the NIH, funding was received for the fiscal year 2019, ensuring that much of the NIH is unaffected by the shutdown.
However, other US agencies partnering with African programmes have been shuttered. For instance, the African Climate and Development Institute (ACDI) works with data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where most research activity has been suspended.
ACDI’s director, Mark New, says that while there haven’t yet been issues with data provided by NOAA, there are concerns if scientists are not regularly monitoring the systems.
“If something goes wrong in the automated archiving and processing, it might take longer to pick it this up and fix it,” he says.
Speaking to SciDev.Net from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 2 Lead Authors Meeting held in Durban, South Africa, New says a number of US scientists were missing. “An immediate impact of the shutdown is the participation by scientists from these agencies in international collaborative projects and bodies,” he says.
This impact extends to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where key staffs have not been able to join international meetings to share their research.
“These are missed opportunities, not only for USAID, but also for the wider development community engaged in critical discussions about research, evidence, programmes and policy,” says Tricia Williams, senior manager for Strategy and Learning at the Mastercard Foundation.

The Mastercard Foundation collaborates with USAID on the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). While YALI centres are still currently operational, Williams says, they are unsure how a continued shutdown may affect the programme.
“We are concerned for the young people at the centre of the YALI initiative, who will miss out on crucial opportunities without this funding,” she says.
Beginning on 22 December 2018, there is currently no end in sight for the shutdown, which is already the longest in history. Williams says such uncertainty from a leading player in the development community could have a ripple effect.
“Science and innovation require sustained partnerships and collaboration,” she says. “If the US government is unable to uphold its commitments, it could weaken the confidence of other development partners and investment in initiatives where the US is a collaborator.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.