Written by Elizabeth Marincola and Thomas Kariuki
African science matters not only because African people matter but also because people everywhere in the world will thrive only if science is driven by the best possible talent and initiative of all the peoples of the world.
This moment in history, between the pressures and uncertainties of COVID-19 and a long-overdue recognition of inequities among people in the United States and worldwide, as exemplified by the Black Lives Matter movement, provides an opportunity to attempt, in this editorial, to put the importance of African research in perspective.
Why does scientific research in Africa matter?
There are many levels on which the future of the world, not just the future of Africa, is being impacted by African research. Let us outline these.
Africa represents the youngest (the median age of an African individual is 19.7 years vs 38.4 years for the median individual in the US) and fastest-growing population in the world. The brain trust which is driven by these demographics makes intellectual investment an imperative, to harness and grow talent that is already a significant share of the global population and whose proportion is growing.
While Africa carries about 20% of the global burden of disease its scientific output represents less than 1% of the world’s share, according to one source.
Africans represent the oldest and most diverse genome in the world. Studies of African disease and public health are critical, not just to improve the mortality and morbidity of Africans themselves but also to shed light on disease that impacts peoples of African origin who reside everywhere in the world – and indeed on all the peoples of the world. After all, the entire human population, all seven billion Homo sapiens, has collective and common origins in Africa. As a Newsweek cover story declared in 2018, “Black Genes Matter”.
It is critical that Africa cultivates and nourishes the potential of its intelligentsia in Africa. The post-colonial reality of the 54 countries of Africa, like developing countries worldwide, has been that the most qualified students and early career researchers seek advanced training in the Global North, in many cases immigrating there. While this enriches the receiving countries, it drains the originating countries of their best talent.
Contrary to the perception of many in the Global North, landing in the US or Europe is not necessarily the preferred outcome for African intellectuals. Many people who have pursued education and-or research opportunities in the Global North are inclined to return to Africa. In order to compete for the return of such individuals, African research institutions must offer the resources and infrastructure that are often more readily available elsewhere in the world.
‘Losing’ these students and researchers to countries in the Global North represents the loss of not just talent but also economic generation, intellectual property, mentorship, and modelling for future generations, in addition to the loss of focus on African genetic, technological, and health challenges.
The burden of disease in Africa is rapidly shifting from communicable to non-communicable causes. Of course the part of this equation that reflects a vast decline in mortality and morbidity from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and neglected tropical diseases is good news.
But it is also a sad story of the rapid increase in incidence in the non-communicable diseases that have for a long time dominated death and poor health in the Global North – heart and other vascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, which are often driven by the same excesses that exist in societies that have been prosperous for longer: obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise. Thus, by investing in African science to address African disease, we invest in the parallel prevention and treatment of the same diseases everywhere in the world.
Scientific research is a vital driver of economies. Without major investments in scientific research, particularly the kind of basic research that is often not considered cost-effective for private enterprises such as pharmaceutical and biotech firms, African economies will be at a perpetual competitive economic disadvantage.
Because of the nature of global pandemics and modern mobility, no one is safe from COVID-19 (and whatever pandemics are to come next) until everyone is safe. Scientific and public health research that is bespoke to the many traditions and cultures of Africa is mandatory, not just to protect the health of Africans but also to protect world health.
Given Africa’s colonial history, in the rear view mirror since just the 1960s, Africa must produce a critical mass of individuals whose primary interest is the well-being of Africa and Africans themselves. More recently, there has been a debate around the issue of decolonising science: pushing for equity and equitable North-South partnerships as well as South-South partnerships that benefit the people, scientists, communities, and economies of Africa.
There is a shameful history of exploitation of the natural and human resources of Africa by other countries. Only by taking their fate into their own hands can Africans be effective guardians of their own health and well-being.
Is there world-class research in Africa?
Yes. Thanks in significant part to the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), which was created in 2015 through a partnership of the Pan-African non-profit African Academy of Sciences and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union heads of governments.
Through AESA here has been major science infrastructure, human resource, training, and education investment in the nations of Africa. Among AESA’s premier programmes is the Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS Africa), which is a US$100 million programme supporting the Africa-led development of world-class researchers and scientific leaders in Africa. Another is the Grand Challenges Africa, aimed at inspiring innovation to address and significantly impact major health problems in Africa.
The themes they are developing cut across major infectious diseases, neglected tropical diseases, “One Health” (the global initiative to coordinate improvements in human, animal, and environmental health), clinical research, social sciences and humanities, transdisciplinary natural sciences, climate sciences, and other areas.
What is the state of publishing?
AAS Open Research was launched in 2018 to provide a high-quality, peer-reviewed, immediate publishing platform for AAS-associated scientists and students to publish scientific output.
Researchers funded by AESA are obligated to publish their findings open access (AAS Open Research being one option, but authors may submit their output to any fully open access platform). AAS Open Research is indexed on PubMed and all other major indexes; its content is predominantly research articles but also includes case reports, review articles, blogs, open letters, notes, study protocols, and methods articles.
The biggest barrier to publishing open access in Africa is the same persistent barrier faced by scientists in the rest of the world: the ‘tyranny of the impact factor’ whereby authors feel compelled to submit their output to the most prestigious journal possible, resulting in delays and perverse pressures on the nature of research itself.
African researchers face additional burdens that may be irrelevant or lesser in the Global North, including but not limited to the costs of publishing (open access publishers are increasingly tightening their waiver policies as they face their own financial pressures).
There is also systematic bias in the peer-review process because African researchers often come from institutions and laboratories unknown to their Western peers. Lesser familiarity with the nuances of the peer-review process, including the necessity to anticipate and respond to reviewer comments to achieve acceptance in a quality journal is another challenge.
A further factor is the relative lack of representation of African researchers as peer reviewers, resulting in a disadvantage of exposure to new findings in their fields, less visibility for collaborations, editorial board service and speaking opportunities, and barriers to development of the skills required to navigate the peer-review process. Even AAS Open Research calls upon more peer reviewers based in the US and Europe than in Africa, even though by definition all submissions come from Africa.
Language and stylistic barriers can at minimum also result in quality research being delayed before being sent for review, and at worst can result in the failure of good research from being published altogether. Victimization by predatory publishers, who often target potential authors in lesser-developed countries, is also a problem.
What are the challenges?
As with publishing, many of the obstacles to establishing a strong, self-sustaining scientific enterprise in Africa parallel those elsewhere in the world.
Inequities within and among populations and between genders result in much potential talent being lost to science productivity in general – and to home-based scientific productivity in particular.
There is continued exploitation by commercial enterprises that regard the African continent as a source of large populations for clinical trials to develop innovative preventions and treatments that will serve more prosperous populations elsewhere in the world, with weaker policy and human protections such as informed consent and intellectual property.
Funding is another factor. While AESA and other programmes have benefited greatly from the consistent support and guidance from generous partners in the Global North, until more African science is performed predominantly in Africa, by Africans and for Africans, the full potential of this work will never be realized.
The nations of the African Union have all pledged to dedicate 1% of their respective GDPs to research and development, but this remains aspirational as these nations grapple with many competing priorities, including education, food and nutrition, access to utilities, and a multitude of other pressing needs.
Complicating funding challenges is the imbalance within the portfolio of science funding. Basic research is almost never attractive to commercial funders, and African governments often do not have the resources or the political time horizon to fill this void. Western funders tend to focus on health and medical research, a worthy focus, but it leaves the physical, mathematical, and chemical sciences as underfunded orphans.
Big innovations are built on the foundation of basic discovery – African scientists must enjoy the opportunity to contribute to that foundation alongside their peers in countries where public investment in basic science has been provided for decades.