The Latest in the Growing Push to Bolster Autonomous Scientific Research in Africa

Last year we highlighted the establishment of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, or AESA, which aims to increase research autonomy in Africa while also creating more opportunities for African scientists. The initiative is a joint effort between the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Academy of Sciences. Last year, AESA received a collective $4.5 million in funding from the Gates Foundation and the UK Department of International Development (DFID).

Related: African Researchers Getting a Say in Where Research Dollars Go Thanks to Top Funders

The problem with African scientists’ lack of research autonomy is that studies funded with foreign dollars were often allocated to the priorities and agendas set by those foreign donors. Meaning, many of the major health concerns in Africa were being overlooked research wise and many times, did not reflect local needs.

Of course, $4.5 million is small beans compared to not only the cost of scientific research but the sheer size of the Gates and DFID. But the hope was that other funders would show up to the table. And one obvious funder of AESA, from the start, was the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of scientific research.  

When AESA was established, the UK-based Wellcome Trust already had a plan in place for its own related initiative—Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science initiative or DELTAS. The five-year program focuses on “the African-led development of world-class researchers and research leaders in Africa.” The trust initially committed $60 million over that five-year period to support the initiative and recently put up an additional £21 million toward that $60 million commitment.

Wellcome Trust’s pledge to foster research autonomy in Africa is an important one, not only for capacity building in the field, but also because its funding focuses on the most urgent regional health challenges across the country. Then there’s was the trust’s conditional promise of handing over the management of DELTAS to AESA.

The condition was this: if the folks at AESA could successfully manage the program in Nairobi, then Wellcome would hand over control of DELTAS, while maintaining its $60 million funding promise. It looks like Wellcome is satisfied with AESA’s work as it plans to hand the management of DELTAS over to AESA later on this year.

So why such a concerted and concentrated effort on Africa? According to a Wellcome’s press release, Africa comprises approximately 15 percent of the global population while shouldering around 25 percent of the global disease burden. While scientists in other nations certainly dedicate their efforts to high burden diseases in Africa, those that are keenly aware of local needs could certainly add significant value to the research process. Unfortunately the continent only produces about two percent of the world’s research output, according to Wellcome. Which largely explains when scientific research in Africa lags behind the rest of the world.

While five years doesn’t seem like a whole lot of time to solve a decades long problem, Wellcome states on its website that DELTAS “fits into a longer term strategy with a 20 year time horizon.” Not only is that a decent amount of time to build the capacity of African scientists, but to grow their voice in the global health community as well.