April 23, 2024

African research universities need more funds

The failure of African countries to properly fund research has left universities “shooting in the dark”, the incoming head of a group of the continent’s top institutions has warned.

John Owusu Gyapong will take over as secretary general of the African Research Universities Alliance (Arua) later this year, when he retires as visiting professor of clinical epidemiology at Georgetown University.

He told Times Higher Education that one of the biggest challenges facing the network of leading universities has been a lack of funding, and there are few signs of this changing.

“It’s been a major problem. Our governments have not funded research in higher education the way they should,” he said.

While many African governments have previously agreed to committing 1 per cent of gross domestic product to support research and development in their countries, that has not happened in reality, and the main financing and funding that is provided to African universities is for teaching and learning, Professor Gyapong added.

He said he has learned from his former institutions, including a spell as vice-chancellor of the University of Health and Allied Sciences in Ho, Ghana, that the vast majority of research grants come from outside the country, from organisations such as the Wellcome Trust or the UK’s Medical Research Council (MRC).

“If I have to go to the MRC or the Wellcome Trust to do research it is most likely that that grant would be of international significance – it must be answering a question that is cutting across many other areas, apart from Ghana,” he said.

“But there are very basic fundamental research questions that Ghana needs to answer, which international organisations are not interested in.”

As a result, a lot of academics are not able to access the necessary resources to do fundamental research on African issues, said Professor Gyapong, who is also former pro vice-chancellor for research innovation and development and professor of epidemiology and disease control at the University of Ghana.

“Because we are not doing the right research we are basically shooting in the dark and therefore policies are not refined enough to achieve the maximum benefits that we could have achieved if we had funded specific research to help us achieve some of these policies and programmes.

“We can continue to apply and be internationally competitive…but African governments need to fund research within Africa.”

Professor Gyapong, who trained as a medical doctor and has specialised in public health, said another related challenge was that many research systems are quite “rudimentary”.

Improving the continent’s research architecture is therefore another of his priorities when he takes up the role in August, succeeding Ernest Aryeetey.

Although he admitted that “being in the saddle can be something completely different than sitting outside and postulating”, Professor Gyapong said he felt compelled to apply for the role.

“In a nutshell, over the last 12 or so years this is what I’ve been doing in higher education – focusing mainly on research so if there is an alliance of research unis in Africa, I believe I have the gravitas – being a former vice-chancellor and being a former pro vice-chancellor for research and development – to be able to bring people around the table and provide some form of leadership.”

Alongside the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, Arua recently agreed to fund 17 research clusters on jointly agreed topics. Professor Gyapong said this is an area he wants to pursue, but there are other issues he wants to focus on.

“I don’t want it all to be money, money, money, business,” he said. “The whole issue of building the research capacity for the next generation of African scientists is also very important.”

He said he wants to help develop the skills of early career researchers, with training in how to apply for grants and grant management a priority.

Although Arua has grown in size since it was launched with just 15 members in 2015, Professor Gyapong said a perception still exists that it is an “elitist” organisation, and he wants it to consider further expansion.

“You may be diluting it but it’s something we need to interrogate because if we really want to affect Africa as a whole, I don’t believe it’s only 16 to 20 institutions that can achieve this.”


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