Calls to increase research funding in Africa louder than ever

15 Feb 2023 | By Clemence Clemence Manyukwe,Edwin Naidu
15 Feb 2023 | By Clemence Clemence Manyukwe,Edwin Naidu

report released on 7 December summarising key recommendations emanating from a workshop organised earlier this year by the non-profit organisation Education Sub-Saharan Africa (ESSA) and the Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, has served as a reminder of the pressing need for funding in the research domain.

Similarly, Professor John Owusu Gyapong, the newly appointed secretary-general of the African Research Universities Alliance, or ARUA, told University World News in an interview that, given the importance of research for Africa’s development, African governments have to make good on their commitment that 1% of GDP should go towards research.

In a response to the ongoing calls for funding, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on 12 December announced the establishment of a ZAR1 billion (about US$54 million) Presidential PhD Initiative with an investment from the National Skills Fund. He appealed to international partners and the private sector to help grow the fund to ZAR5 billion by 2030.

“The first phase aims to expose our country’s brightest young minds to cutting-edge thinking and research by negotiating opportunities at world-leading universities and research centres,” said Ramaphosa.

“Their studies will be linked to large-scale and established research programmes, both in public research facilities and in industry. The programme will build critical skills in areas like artificial intelligence research, advanced biotechnology, fuel cell development, batteries and other storage, and next-generation mining,” he said at the Inaugural Presidential Science, Technology and Innovation Plenary in Pretoria, an initiative that brings together government, academia, civil society and industry to collectively drive South Africa’s national system of innovation.

Alluding to the national investment in research and development, Ramaphosa said South Africa’s 2021 expenditure was 0.6%, below the country’s target of 1.5%.

“By comparison, in 2022, the United States spent 2.6% and South Korea 5% of their respective GDPs on research and development. This is a situation that we are determined to turn around,” he said.


Whereas, the funding levels for research remain a concern, a high-level consultative engagement on how to strengthen the voice of the African Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) ecosystem hosted on 4 December at Future Africa, University of Pretoria, South Africa, heard that efforts to build scientific capacity and develop African science systems are starting to yield positive outcomes.

To keep the forward momentum, an African STI Leadership Forum was proposed at the gathering as one of the ways in which to kick-start collective efforts towards building a stronger African science ecosystem.

Future Africa Director Dr Heide Hackmann said a strategic forum or alliance of committed partners could work together for a common purpose and shared value, during the meeting which also reviewed key developments in STI on the African continent.

Such a network, Hackmann noted, would lead to the exchange of strategic information and ideas on African science systems development, raise awareness of and advocate engagement with and support for the needs and interests, opportunities and challenges of African science, and provide scientific leadership and advice on the development of pan-African initiatives.

Convened under the theme, ‘Unleashing the global potential of African science: Towards the next level of collaborative action’, the day-long deliberations, featuring around 70 attendees, included members of the International Science Council (ISC), science academies from the continent, including Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana and Zimbabwe, as well as South African academics and scientists.

Future Africa is the University of Pretoria’s collaborative research platform that works across the sciences to address contemporary challenges and the ISC is an international non-governmental organisation operating globally to pool scientific expertise on significant societal issues.

Hackmann shared findings from work done on research funding flows by Professor Johann Mouton, Director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, or CREST, at Stellenbosch University under the auspices of the Science Granting Councils Initiative.

The inter-African collaboration among academics and science researchers on the continent remains low despite widespread calls at a political level to foster partnerships, according to Hackmann.

Considering the challenges faced by the world, Hackmann says longstanding efforts to build scientific capacity and develop African science systems are starting to yield positive outcomes, with Africa’s share of academic publication output more than doubling from 1.5% in 2005 to 3.2% in 2016, and the citation impact of African-authored papers has been increasing steadily over the past 30 years from 0.48 in 1980 to 0.73% in 2014.

“Furthermore, institution-building efforts such as the Science Granting Councils Initiative were strengthened, and new multilateral funding partnerships have emerged – for example, the 17 [which have been increased to 20] Clusters of Research Excellence of ARUA and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities (The Guild).”

Despite these positive developments, persistent challenges exist across the broader African science ecosystem.

Ongoing challenges

Some of the challenges, in particular related to funding, were also highlighted in the ESSA-REAL report following a workshop titled, ‘Enhancing Africa-led Research on Early Childhood Development and Foundational Learning’ that brought together 53 invited education stakeholders, mainly researchers, but also funders, policymakers and practitioners from Sub-Saharan Africa earlier this year.

The report will be used to develop long-term outcomes to support education researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa to do more high-quality policy-relevant research that will improve learning outcomes for all. Many of the report’s themes resonate with the more general discussion at other forums, including the one at the University of Pretoria mentioned earlier.

The findings will also contribute to the Enhancing Education Research in Africa, or EERA, project.

The EERA project aims to determine the prerequisites for establishing a strong and sustainable African education research system and to design funding pathways to strengthen education research in Africa.

What and who should be funded?

The question of research influenced by a wide range of policy agendas, with global policy agendas being the most powerful for funding purposes, came to the fore again – a topic also raised in the research done by CREST’s Professor Johann Mouton.

But two African countries were given as examples for prioritising domestic funding for research. In Tanzania, the report said, the government allocates funding to support research areas prioritised by the African Union, while, in Kenya, the government policy on a competency-based framework attracts lots of research.

The report also suggested that funding for research in Africa should be allocated to African scholars based in African institutions and aligned with their interests and priorities. Additionally, funding should not only target government and universities, as is usually the case, but also grassroots non-governmental organisations that understand the community, are able to create a rapport with locals, and thus deliver better results.

Other research challenges

Another point raised in the report was the need for the creation of data hubs where African data will be readily available and accessible to African researchers.

These centres will give African scholars the opportunity to collaborate among themselves, while also serving as avenues they can turn to for capacity-building and professional development. By collaborating with each other, scholars will also boost their credibility, as they leverage on each other’s strengths and expertise, according to the report.

Enhancing Africa-led research requires an environment that supports researchers to thrive and undertake high-quality research but, in many contexts, the needs of researchers such as training, funding, mentorship, collaboration or partnership, and conducive research environments were not addressed, the report added.

It also said there is need to profile and catalogue regional needs in Africa, which could prove useful when funders are looking for researchers.

On capacity-building, the report said early-career researchers should budget for mentorship by senior academics for up to five years – an aspect that could also be built into the call for funding and large grant proposals.

“More research needs to be conducted in languages other than English, such as French and Portuguese. Also, findings for research conducted in English could be translated into French, Portuguese, and other local languages for easy access,” reads part of the report.

According to the report, there is also a need for advocacy for increased funding using avenues such as social media and academic platforms. This would help researchers become more visible and improve the recognition of their work.

It said there is need for a regional research agenda to enhance South-South collaboration and added that travel should be made less strenuous for researchers, hence simplifying the visa process for conference attendance and study visits to other countries would be helpful.

According to the report, exchange programmes for doctoral students, early-career, and female researchers within Africa and abroad remained important.

Technical support to conduct research, more interdisciplinary research and collaboration among scientists and between scientists and policymakers were also highlighted.

The report encouraged the creation of an association of African educational researchers, with the mandate to lobby or advocate for positive change and raise funds; co-create a research agenda at continental, regional and national levels to initiate interdisciplinary research [and] share information (work and other opportunities available) with other researchers.