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African research funding needs to balance excellence with equity


Funding biases entrench gap between those who have and have not, says Alphonsus Neba

One fundamental trend we have witnessed in the last year or so is rising inequality and glaring income and social discrepancies heightened by the global pandemic.

From a research perspective, inequality manifests in many ways across the continent. For instance, geographically, there isn’t equitable access to funding, with institutions in countries such as Ghana, South

Africa and Kenya receiving the bulk of funding from funders, leaving smaller nations to grapple with their own research needs.

There is also evidence that the bias skews toward men when it comes to individual researchers accessing grants.

While some may argue that these institutions are the preferred recipients due to their strong capabilities and infrastructure, the funding gap reinforces the biases and inequalities that exist, widening the knowledge and skills gap between institutions.

The issue is further compounded by weak institutional policies, lack of data governance and unclear processes that exist in certain parts of the continent.

To put it simply, in research, the pursuit of excellence is overriding the pursuit for equity.

The impact on Africa’s development

The impacts of this lack in equity will affect the capability of countries to meet their developmental and social needs. Advancements in science, technology and innovation research have a direct impact on our ability to solve our greatest challenges and improve societies.

Sustainable Development Goal number 9 underscores the value of investing in scientific research and innovation as a way to facilitate sustainable development. As we’ve seen with the Covid-19 pandemic, evidence based policy and quality research is key to ensuring we can take tangible steps to find solutions. But this requires relevant data to inform policy, and without research such data will not be available.

Another challenge facing science, technology and innovation research in Africa is that the continent relies heavily on foreign governments and international agencies for funding. The funding also tends to go toward health and medical research, and overall, there simply isn’t enough.

It also means that African-based researchers do not have the full agency to pursue the research that is most in line with their priorities, and with many African governments contributing less than 1% of GDP to fund innovation and science on the continent, there will always be an uneven playing field.

Ways forward

So, what can be done to bring the concept of equity into the funding of research in Africa?
Intra-African collaboration has a role to play. This allows countries to tap into each other’s resources and collectively develop scientific breakthroughs. The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa has been at the forefront of this, facilitating intra-Africa research collaboration with different institutions.

Current funding decision models could be reviewed to spur on this development. By introducing changes that balance excellence with equity, and promoting intra-African research collaboration supported by collaborations with strong institutions in the Global North, foreign governments and international funding agencies and charities can achieve phenomenal change and impact at no extra cost.

One key outcome of such a process change would include expanded access, inclusivity, diversity and participation by weak research institutions across various parts of the continent that face perennial national and international research funding drought. These are research institutions that are not able to win competitive grants based on current decision models largely defined by excellence-based criteria, and there are quite a few of those institutions on the continent.

A cost-effective approach

Reviewing research funding criteria might also be a cost-effective way to redistribute research grants more equitably. This is vital in the context of reduced funding for research occasioned by the global economic slowdown brought on by the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Indeed, innovative ways to stretch the value of the research dollar and to improve value for money in research programmes could go a long way to circumvent the current looming threat of a total collapse of the research enterprise on the continent.

Reports show there is an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. There is also increased scepticism and heightened inequality. Scientists, however, are still seen to be credible and trusted.

As a continent, it is our mandate to ensure that regardless of location, our scientists are receiving the right support to enable us to create policies that will ensure we collectively move towards sustainable economic development.

Dr Alphonsus Neba is the Deputy Programmes Director – Science Support and Systems and Programme Manager for Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training, and Science (DELTAS Africa) at the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa created through a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences, African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and global partners.