African Academy of Sciences governance row raises concerns over future of research funding
Leaders of the African Academy of Sciences are at loggerheads with a group of its fellows over the management of the influential organisation, as auditors trawl its financial records.
The rift has emerged as an international accountancy firm performs an independent audit of finances and governance at the AAS. The row centres on the running of the AAS, the handling of the audit and the future of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), AAS’s pioneering funding arm that channels international funding to African scientists, as well as the suspension of the academy’s former executive director.
In recent weeks, Research Professional News has heard concerns from multiple sources that the row is creating uncertainty about the money funneled through AESA, although the leadership has downplayed those fears. This follows an announcement in January by AESA’s director, Tom Kariuki, that the organisation was working on a new strategic plan for “AESA 2.0”, which would “secure wider global support” and strengthen AESA’s governance and leadership.
Funders that have backed AESA since its establishment in 2015 confirmed they are aware of tensions at the AAS, and stressed that they remain committed to supporting African science.
“We are in dialogue with the AAS and believe we all share the same vision of supporting science in Africa and helping AAS and AESA to continue to play their crucial roles,” said the head of international operations at the Wellcome Trust biomedical research charity, Simon Kay.
The AAS governing council announced a “forensic audit” last July, as it revealed the suspension of former executive director Nelson Torto. The academy replaced Torto with Catherine Ngila in an interim role, saying the suspension would “pave the way for the commencement and completion of an independent audit”.
But several fellows have complained about the handling of the audit and the suspension of Torto, accusing the governing council of not following “due process”.
Research Professional News has since learned that Torto is taking legal action against the AAS over what he called a “labour and employment issue”. He said he resigned after receiving his suspension, and that his contract was due to expire on 31 July.
Research Professional News understands the audit has been examining allegations that salaries were raised at the AAS and benefits extended to staff without following the right procedures.
Torto told Research Professional News he “was never interviewed by the firm conducting the forensic audit”, and added, “I can only confirm that all processes and procedures relating to expenditures, including salaries, were followed with clear documentation”, including a benchmarking exercise.
He also said that during his time at the AAS there were numerous routine audits that “came out clean”, without indicating “any financial mismanagement”.
Last year, members of the AAS governing council wrote to fellows, saying the rationale behind the audit was sound, and that nobody implicated in the allegations had anything to fear if there had been no wrongdoing.
A meeting of the AAS general assembly in December tasked the AAS governing council with setting up a subcommittee of the general assembly to analyse the audit’s findings, to interview anyone implicated in it, and submit a final report to the assembly.
The governing council then intends to set up a disciplinary committee to address any wrongdoing identified in the final audit, and to look at recovering any financial losses AAS incurred as a result.
AAS president Felix Dakora, who was re-elected to his post last year, told Research Professional News that when he re-ran for the post, “I made it clear that if I won the election, the governance architecture of the AAS will need restructuring. We have not reached there yet, as there is still the audit report to be finalised by a committee of the AAS general assembly.”
He said the governing council was “100 per cent in the lane of transparency”, adding that when the audit is finalised, “I want the truth to be told”.
Dakora said the governing council had been “close” to completing a revision of its memorandum of understanding, a charter for AESA and a hosting agreement for the funding arm when it decided with funders that certain AAS policies had to be revised before re-engaging with that process. “Those policies are now in place and we’re in the process of re-engagement,” he said.
But several AAS fellows feel the academy’s governing council is not being open and transparent. They believe tensions between the AAS governing council, some fellows, and funders that support AESA are inhibiting the academy’s ability to do its job.
“It’s a culture that’s been there for a while,” said John Mugabe, an innovation scholar based at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. “In the absence of transparency in the academy and in African institutions, it’s going to be very difficult to address the challenges.”
The concerned fellows have now called on international funders that support AAS and in particular its funding management arm, to stand up to “governance challenges” at the AAS, saying these are undermining the future of the AESA funding arm.
AAS fellows have also queried delays in appointing a permanent executive director to replace Torto.
In an open letter to AAS partners, 14 fellows outlined their “deep concern” over aspects of the governance of the AAS, including relating to its running of AESA.
AESA was created in 2015 as a funding arm through which international research funders could channel their grant money targeting African scientists. In 2016, Wellcome handed over to AESA the management of two of its flagship African funding programmes: the Deltas Africa programme to train young scientists—the first tranche of which was worth £60 million ($85m) in funding—and H3Africa to boost African genomics research—the first tranche of which was worth £9m. The funder hailed it as a milestone move of ‘shifting the centre of gravity" for Wellcome’s African grantmaking from the UK to Africa.
Recipients of the fellows’ letter included representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and AUDA-NEPAD, two other funders that backed the creation of AESA.
In the letter, dated 29 January 2021, the fellows accuse the AAS governing council of taking “certain actions and…decisions that undermine the growth and sustainability of the AESA”, including suspending Torto.
The letter urges the funders to “take action to safeguard the AESA platform and the funding for all projects which have promoted the growth of Africa-led science on the continent”.
Dakora told Research Professional News that the governing council was not at fault. He said the council worked for the general assembly, made up of AAS fellows, which is the highest body of the AAS and appoints the governing council.
He said the timeframe for a replacement for Torto “may depend on a number of factors”, including the finalisation of the audit and a restructuring of the governance of the AAS he says he promised to undertake when he ran for re-election to his post in 2020.
Talks with funders
Funders that support AESA, including those addressed in the January letter, have voiced their support for the body.
“We’re grateful for the letter from the AAS fellows,” said Wellcome’s Kay.
“It’s important to us that AESA is hosted by an organisation that has the vision and stability to effectively manage large grant schemes and to secure the confidence of stakeholders across Africa.”
He added: “We have not seen anything, including the initial report of the audit commissioned by the AAS, that has given us cause to lose confidence in the ability of AESA to continue delivering for the African research community,” he said.
Other funders that backed AESA’s creation include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, AUDA-NEPAD and the UK Department for International Development.
Aggrey Ambali, head of the science, technology and innovation hub at AUDA-NEPAD, the African Union development agency, said the agency “remains committed to AAS and its vision. To this end there is continued dialogue in order to address the current challenges at the AAS.”
A spokesperson for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said the foundation was aware the AAS was undergoing an audit. “The foundation is actively monitoring the situation, as issues raised are of significant concern, and we look forward to a clear and definitive readout from the auditors,” they said.
“Covid-19 has highlighted the need for greater scientific innovation and collaboration across geographies, sectors and backgrounds,” the Gates spokesperson said. “We remain committed to ensuring the best of African science is enabled and encouraged through partnerships across the continent.”
A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe