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NIH awards $75m to African data science projects


Five-year grants aim to strengthen continent’s ability to manage and analyse health data

The United States National Institutes of Health has announced 19 projects that will share US$74.5 million to support data use for health research in Africa.

Announcing the awards on 26 October, the funder said the five-year DS-I Africa awards would “advance data science, catalyse innovation and spur health discoveries across Africa”.

One grant will support a continent-serving data science platform and coordinating centre, to be based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Seven grants will build research hubs, seven will fund data science training, and four will study the ethical, legal and social implications of data science research.

The NIH told Research Professional News that all the awards would have at least one prominent African principal investigator. Of the 19 awards, 14 are made directly to African academic institutions, which will directly receive US$65m.

“The five awards to US institutions are research training programmes working in partnership with African institutions to build health data science capacity in Africa,” the NIH said.

Some awardees will rely on partners outside Africa for technical assistance in data management and analysis, the NIH said. But even these projects will aim to build African capacity so that it requires less technical assistance from outside by the end of the grant period.

The DS-I Africa consortium will develop a data sharing and access policy to help protect the privacy of research participants, as well as to safeguard confidential and proprietary data and resources, the NIH said.

Two of the seven research hubs will be based in South Africa, both at the Wits Health Consortium in Johannesburg. They will study multi-disease morbidity and the health impacts of climate change.

Nigeria will host two hubs, one studying SARS-CoV-2 and HIV data to improve pandemic preparedness, the other to study antimicrobial resistance. They will be based at Redeemers’ University and at the Institute of Human Virology.

A Kenya hub at Aga Khan University will develop and validate artificial intelligence models to identify women at risk of poor pregnancy outcomes, among other issues.

A Ugandan hub based at Mbarara University will harness data science for medical imaging to diagnose eye disease and cervical cancer, while scientists at Cameroon’s University of Buea will look into ways to decrease surgical diseases and injury burdens across the continent.

All hubs except the Kenyan one have collaborating partners in other African countries.

Research training will build skills in health data science, ranging from master’s tracks to faculty development. Two will be run by African institutions: The University of Cape Town in South Africa and Makerere University in Uganda.

The ethics programmes will be based at the universities of Stellenbosch, KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town, all in South Africa, with the fourth at the Center for Bioethics and Research in Nigeria.

A second phase of the DS-I Africa programme is being planned to encourage more researchers to join, the NIH said. This will support partnerships to expand the DS-I Africa network and education awards to complement the long-term training offered by the Phase 1 grants.