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No Country in Africa Invests 1% of GDP into Research--Scientists

Abdulsalam Mahmud, FASLN

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Africa, as a continent, is desirous of attaining rapid scientific growth and technological development. It is the only way for it to catch up with its peers—Europe, Asia, Central America, Australia, and South America. But at the moment, none of its 54 countries invests as much as 1% of their Gross Domestic Products (GDP) into research and development (R&D), as recommended by the African Union (AU).

A university scholar, Dr. Mahmoud Bukar Maina, and some researchers said the inability to meet this R&D funding target has somewhat affected Africa’s research output and innovations. Dr. Maina, who is a Research Fellow at the School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, in United Kingdom (UK) and TReND in Africa’s Outreach Coordinator, together with 21 other scientists and research-academics, disclosed this in a paper entitled: “20 years of African Neuroscience: Waking a sleeping giant.”

African Neuroscience

In the article published on the website of bioRxiv, a research preprint database, they pointed out that South-Africa is one of the few countries nearly meeting this target (of adequately funding research), which partly explains its leading role in African neuroscience.

According to Wikipedia, neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system. It combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, mathematical modeling, and psychology to understand the fundamental and emergent properties of neutrons and neural circuits.

Growing African Research

For African research to continue to grow exponentially, they unanimously stressed that, African governments must step up and provide reliable support to their domestic research sector. Such efforts, according to them, might also be well-supported by the local philanthropic sector.

“Africa has a large number of individuals and charitable organisations with access to substantial funds. Governments, scientists and the general population must engage with these to contribute to local science funding, much like major non-African philanthropic organisations such as the Gates Foundation or Wellcome Trust that currently fund research on the African continent. To attract more funding, there is a need for African Neuroscientists to engage in Neuroscience advocacy campaigns to raise the profile of their research and its relevance, especially to local problems,” they said.

Africa’s Neuroscience Productivity

Dr. Maina, and his co-authors, noted that their unique dataset highlights that Africa’s neuroscience productivity is on an all-time high, with a clear and ongoing upwards trajectory. They equally said, while the number of neuroscientists on the continent remains tiny compared to the total population, the neuroscience scientific workforce is on the rise.

They posited: “This is for example mirrored in the increasing number of neuroscientists attending the Society of Neuroscientists of Africa (SONA) bi-annual meetings, or a continuous rise in the number of applications for African-based neuroscience training programmes. It is worrisome that most declared neuroscience funding came from external sources, most notably from the USA and the UK. However, local funding is instead needed for establishing a viable African neuroscience research environment. Although there is clear evidence of increasing Neuroscience outputs from African laboratories, Africa has much to do before it can catch up with the Global North.

“Based on citation and IF metrics, there remains substantial heterogeneity in the visibility of the neuroscience outputs across the continent. Under the caveat of using such metrics, West Africa seems to lag behind among all the regions. For example, the region’s giant – Nigeria, published only one Neuroscience paper in a ‘top‐tier’ journal in the 21-year period. The lack of visibility, especially in citations, may be part-explained by choices over where work is submitted for publication. Many Nigerian Neuroscience papers are published in African journals, which generally offer poor visibility beyond the continent’s borders.”

Unlike the USA (33%), UK and Japan (23%), Australia (12%) and Brazil (3%), no African country, according to them, used any genetically modified model systems (including cell culture or mice) in more than 1% of neuroscience publications.

Maina and his co-authors said: “Most African countries used none at all. Clearly, the promotion of the use of such model systems should be considered as part of strategies aimed to modernize Africa’s research landscape.”

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Getting an Accurate Overview

Elaborating on the significance of their research, Tom Baden, Professor of Neuroscience at University of Sussex, who is one of the joint author of the paper, in an email to this reporter, said: “We wanted to gain an accurate overview of what kind of Neuroscience is being done on the continent (e.g. in terms of research themes), who is doing it, and how this output compares with countries outside of Africa. We also wanted to know where the money comes from, if any. This, in particular, revealed that most of the research activities are funded by agencies outside of Africa. So one take home message might be that domestic funding, rather than international funding, is fundamental to build a strong research base.”

Why Local Funding?

On his part, Dr. Maina, lead writer of the paper, when interviewed by this reporter, maintained that Africa cannot rely entirely on external support since such funding will not be sufficient and also unsustainable. He said local funding is definitely needed to establish local research hubs that can address problems through research.

“For example, African governments, philanthropists or even charity organisations could help in the establishment of modern research centres that researchers can use to conduct sophisticated researches and train the next generation of scientists. These centres will have state-of-the-art equipment and resources and will also serve as a hub for collaborations between researchers within and outside Africa. This would help in boosting the level of research-led innovations and knowledge economy within Africa. Moreover, it is important for any funding to be sustained since research is not a one-off event.

“Researchers continue to address existing and new problems. So, a significant amount of money dedicated for research and development should be a major part of the budget of African countries. Such funds should also cater for research collaborations, exchange programmes, conferences, and publication costs of research. Altogether, this would help in sustaining the local research environment and innovation,” he added.

Way Forward

Maina, who is also a visiting scientist at the College of Medical Sciences, Yobe State University; together with his fellow researchers, meanwhile, observed that although funding schemes and training programmes have enabled many African scientists to acquire modern neuroscience skills in foreign labs, the absence of the same research infrastructure back at their home institutions continues to restrict the extent to which such skills can be put into use.

“Clearly, beyond financial investment, African researchers must be afforded widespread access to modern research infrastructure. In addition to the provision of training opportunities abroad, local and international Neuroscience funding initiatives should support African scientists to establish their laboratories. Similarly, African labs have much to gain from investing in infrastructure and expertise in designing and producing research-grade open hardware equipment. Finally, the near-complete absence in the use of transgenic models in African Neuroscience is worrying, and likely contributes substantially to the generally low visibility of Africa’s neuroscience community,” they said.

They added, in their jointly-authored article: “Taken together, while African Neuroscience remains comparatively small, it is clearly on the rise. To sustain this rise and increase the continent’s neuroscience visibility, there is a clear need for increased investment in modern research equipment, training in the use of this equipment, and the adoption of genetically tractable models. While some of this investment will likely continue to come from beyond Africa’s borders, it will be critical to bolster African countries’ domestic research support streams, from governments and private funders alike. Next, while international collaborations are valuable, African neuroscience must in parallel be strengthened through intra-African collaborations and the promotion of sharing of restricted resources.”

Neuroscience in Future

“I want to hypothesize that neuroscience will become a leading medical or biomedical programme that will provide basic principles from which disorders or diseases would be manipulated for therapeutic purposes,” Prof. Ahmed Adedeji, who is a lecturer at the Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), in Ogun State, said.

Adedeji, a Professor of Pharmacology, expressed belief that neuroscience, will in the nearest future, influence morality and culture, citizen and wellbeing, state and power, and our understanding of nature.

His words: “We have to scale up interest in neuroscience research. There are still many naughty problems unresolved about man, development and society.”

Prof. Adedeji, who is the Head of Future of Medicine, Science, Technology and Innovation Group (FoMSTIG) at OOU, further said: “We should learn more and connect with those successfully advancing neuroscience. Collaborate and strengthen local collaborations to address major problems in the country and Africa.”

This special report is jointly owned by ASLN Fellows, Abdulsalam Mahmud (Journalist) and Royhaan Folarin (Scientist)

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