By Martin Wagah Gorry, The writer is a Postgraduate diploma student in IDeAL
The frigid Nairobi air penetrated into the palatial comforts of the Mövenpick Hotel & Residences on 20th June 2018, forcing its inhabitants to hurdle closer together to lessen the sting of the morning cold. Government officials, executives of the private sector, funding institution representatives, researchers, academics and other members of the public had pilgrimed here from various parts of the world – some from as far as Nigeria, Turkey and the streets of London. This 2-day event, officially opened by Dr Sam Kinyanjui – IDeAL Director and Head of Training KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme – was meant to celebrate a remarkable success story of capacity building. In addition, it was meant to provide key stakeholders with a platform to discuss the issues that promote and constrain capacity building in Africa.
Scientific research is one of the most vital elements in the progress of a modern society. It generates both organized knowledge and data; it develops professionals that can be injected into other sectors of the society; and it yields information and technologies that can be used to inform policy, generate wealth, bolster economic growth and solve our most intractable problems. It is for this reason that no region in the world should allow itself to lag behind in its scientific research output.
The Initiative to Develop African Research Leaders (IDeAL) is an Africa-based and Africa-led initiative hosted by the KEMRI-Wellcome trust Research Programme in Kilifi. It is among the 11 ‘DELTAs Africa’ funded programmes, geared to produce a generation of globally competitive researchers who can generate high-quality research and drive Africa’s research Agenda. This is meant to generate knowledge that can impact health policy and practice to address Africa’s heavy disease burden. IDeAL seeks to do this through expert academic support, training, supervision and mentorship. It attracts school leavers and young graduates to research through its attachment and internship schemes, and offers them a well-defined career path all the way to post-doctoral research.
With only 198 researchers per million people, Africa requires at least 1 million more PhDs to match the world average for number of researchers per million people. Since its inception in 2008, the IDeAL programme has made bold strides to bridge this gap by employing a multidisciplinary approach to health research. It has focused on multiple domains such as the biosciences, clinical research, epidemiology, biostatistics, social sciences and health systems. In a mere 10 years, it has successfully trained 150 undergraduate attachés, 222 Graduate Interns, 96 masters, 75 PhDs, 50 Postdoctoral fellows and lead to over 700 publications in peer reviewed journals. In addition, it has also fostered regional and international collaboration.
Addressing the participants, Dr Benjamin Tsofa – the Centre Director, KEMRI-Centre for Geographical Medicine Research Coast – thanked all in attendance for their solidarity in supporting research capacity building in Africa. He was happy to note that an idea that began long ago had metamorphosed into a programme of great repute. He also acknowledged that the programme’s foremost progenitor, Prof Kevin Marsh – currently the Director, Africa Oxford Initiative and Senior Advisor of the African Academy of Sciences – was in attendance. Dr Tsofa appreciated that the work done by Prof. Marsh in capacity building before the conception of IDeAL that had yielded great professionals who were now at the helm of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme administration. He also thanked the international and regional partners, particularly the Wellcome Trust, University of Oxford, UKAID and NEPAD for the support they have rendered to the IDeAL programme in the fulfillment of its objectives.
The subsequent plenary session participants and quick-fire presenters showcased the products of this capacity building, which included but was not limited to advances in malaria and HIV vaccinology, evidence-based paediatric treatments, modelling of disease transmission chains, novel vector surveillance techniques and assessments of Kenya’s progress towards Universal Health Care. Each plenary session was followed by a panel discussion session, graced by a diverse range of experts, and was punctuated by poster presentations on the associated works.
The first session, moderated by the journalist per excellence Terryanne Chebet, explored ways of enhancing research and development across various sectors in the region. Dr. Tom Kariuki – Director, Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa – acknowledged the achievements made by the African Academy of Sciences and IDeAL. He attributed them to the passion, commitment and fortitude of all stakeholders involved. Agreeing with him, Prof. Charlotte Watts – Chief Scientific Advisor, Department For International Development – said that these successes would be unattainable without multi-sectorial collaborations across the continent and the world. Indeed, IDeAL implements its programs through the financial and executive support it receives from funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust, DFiD and others. It was unanimously agreed by the panellists that both local funding bodies should invest more to support the implementation of Africa’s science strategy. This local investment is meant to allow Africa to set its independent research agenda by targeting priority areas set by African scientists themselves.
The second session, moderated by Mr. Charles Kamau – IDeAL’s former graduate intern and current Communications Manager – focused chiefly on strengthening R&D in local universities. Dr Sam Kinyanjui stressed that the goodwill of academic institutions is required in order for similar collaborations to succeed. Without the goodwill of the Pwani University administration, he maintained, sustaining the IDeAL programme would be almost impossible. Prof. Koi Tirima – Education Consultant, TBC – decried the rote learning system. “I once failed 70% of my class,” she said, and subsequently advised students to adopt an autodidactic approach to learning that enriches their critical thinking.
Dr. Ademola Olajide – Resident Representative, UNPF – remarked that Africa should harness its rapid population growth for scientific and economic development. “Population is an asset,” he quipped, “but it is also a trap. The quality of the population matters a lot.” He also insisted that a strong linkage between researchers and decision makers should be maintained in order for scientific research to be translated into policy and actionable programmes.
Numerous key ideas that requiring consideration also emerged from the questions posed by the audience during this forum. Firstly, was Africa’s reliance on north-South collaborations, which was regarded as not necessarily ideal for the long run. It was also unclear whether local universities had the capacity to conduct cutting-edge research, due to both the absence of policy to guide inter-departmental collaborations and the inadequacy of opportunities for academics to venture into postdoctoral research. “We also have some professors supervising dozens of students in many different disciplines. How can they really offer sufficient supervision?” Prof. Koi lamented.
Secondly, Dr. George Githingi of the KWTRP noted that global research funding is mostly spearheaded by individuals, and wondered why there is a scarcity of African philanthropists in public research despite the increasing number of dollar billionaires on the continent. Prof. Thumbi Ndung’u also questioned the contributions made by the private sector in investing in public scientific research, and urged them to pull up their socks. Thirdly, Dr. Evelyn Gitau of the African Population Health Research Centre also questioned whether the commendable gender distribution ratios reported in the IDeAL capacity building were maintained also in the retaining of professionals.
Other researchers also lamented about the difficulty of maintaining long-term national programmes in the face of 5 – year ‘non-transitional governments’, which tend to cast away the baby with the birth water as soon as they come into power. It was noted that political will is required to promote capacity building in scientific research. Very few African countries spend more than 1% of their GDP on research and development. This exacerbates Africa’s dependence on international donors, limiting its ability to drive its own research agenda. It is no wonder, Dr George Wairimwe noted, that there is a disproportionately large number of human vaccine trials going on in Africa in comparison to actual vaccine manufacture.
As the celebration came to a close, it was unanimously agreed – under the guidance of Prof Koi Tirima – that we must all pledge to contribute to research capacity building in our specific areas. After all, without a concertive effort to drive this agenda, capacity building in Africa would only remain as a dream.