At the KEMRI Scientific and Health Conference: what is the way forward for African research?

I didn’t hear about this until the very last minute, but was lucky enough to get the invitation letter in time to at least make it to the last day.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has, for the past five years, held a research dissemination event intended to highlight KEMRI sponsored and Kenya based research.

Research led by Africans is sadly scarce. R&D funding in SSA is the lowest in the world. In a context where so few people are able to receive an education of sufficient quality to allow post graduate studies, African researchers are few and the resources available to them are low.

Kenya has committed 2% of GDP to R%D. Contrast this with South Korea, which at one point committed 23% of GDP to R&D efforts. While KEMRI is truly a leader in the context of African research, the low level of commitment on the part of the national government makes it tiny in the context of worldwide research.

The presentations I have seen so far have been excellent, but of course, much of this research survives on the good graces of international funding and training. Most of the research presented was performed within the CDC.

So this begs the question, when will and can African countries take ownership of their research? Is this even possible given the dysfunctional nature of politics here?

The story of Africa and African identity (in a global context) is written by the rest of the world. As a foreign researcher, I quite aware that I am part of this phenomenon.

Presenters have pointed to two main issues (which I agree with). First, African countries cannot proceed to develop their research sectors (or any other sector really) unless Africans take charge of in country and continent wide research priorities. It is important to note that foreign research often takes on issues which were of importance in the colonial period (childhood infectious diseases) despite a growing burden of chronic diseases and diseases of aging which will break the budgets and economies of African countries.

While I do not suggest that attention be diverted from the incredible burden of infectious disease in African countries, it is telling that research priorities are still driven by the international community. Central Province in Kenya is quite well developed. Even my taxi drivers ask me why we don’t do research in Central, given the incredible problems of heart disease, cancer and alcoholism up there. Unless Kenyans spearhead the main issues impacting their country, these problems will go unadressed.

Second, as noted before, governments have to make firm commitments to support domestic research. As of now, African countries wait for international funding to support their projects, which shifts the conversation away from domestic priorities to international priorities. This is a tall order here, of course.

Of interest, though, besides the macro level problems of funding and support, presenters passionately call for people with Masters and PhD to use the degrees. “Why don’t you do research? What is wrong with you?”

I can’t speak to this issue effectively. But my sense is that many capable people don’t sense the urgency of doing research and lack the personal initiative to make it happen. I’ve seen it happen that researchers wait to have foreigners write their research for them, and simply wait to have their name rubber stamped on the paper, taking credit for work that they did not do. This is an unacceptable situation that we, unfortunately, enable. Certainly there are issues of experience and capability, but we shouldn’t handle capable African researchers with kid gloves, particularly this well educated young generation.

Sadly, the history of aid and foreign involvement here has set this precedent. This is an era that needs to come to an end. In the private sector, it has. In the public sector, these problems persist. Older researchers, many of whom came of age during the beginnings of the post-independence era, here are screaming that point at the top of their lungs.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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