Africa can attain research excellence

Between 2014 and 2018, 47 WHO Africa Region member states used the barometer to monitor, identify and address critical gaps in national health research systems.

Prospective students and their parents have been examining the recently published 2022 World University Rankings.

The ranking pattern has now become familiar.

European, American and Asian universities jostle for the top positions while a sprinkling of African universities start appearing after the first 200. Some don’t even enter the rankings. This is despite universities in Africa making the most progress in the rankings since 2018. The rankings are derived using various measures. These include funding and endowment, research excellence or influence, specialisation expertise, student admissions and options, and historical reputation.

Africa accounts for 12.5 percent of the world’s population. But it produces less than 1 percent of global research output. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest research capacity and output in the world. At this rate the region’s universities are unlikely ever to break into the top 10 – or even 50.

The continent has no shortage of intelligent, hardworking and innovative people. These rankings indicate that Africa is not tapping its full potential. How can the continent’s research potential be enabled to make its full contribution to domestic and global challenges?

We cannot manage or improve what we do not measure. So, I propose the creation of a Research Excellence Barometer for Africa (REBA). As a Zimbabwean I feel this is particularly apt – reba is the Shona verb “to grow tall”. The barometer would operate at country level. It would identify areas of research excellence and areas of weakness.

Tools like this can be transformative. For example, a few years ago I contributed to an assessment of national health research systems in Africa using a research barometer. The work was prompted by the recognition that health systems lacked resources and research capacity to deliver on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Between 2014 and 2018, 47 WHO Africa Region member states used the barometer to monitor, identify and address critical gaps in national health research systems. This has delivered significant progress over just four years. For example, there was significant progress in the governance of research for health; developing and sustaining research resources; and producing and using research.

Something similar, but more ambitious, can help transform Africa’s entire scientific research ecosystem.

Currently, among Africa’s 10-12 million annual graduates, those wishing to continue their research face huge challenges. Poorly equipped and funded institutions translate into low salaries. Limited domestic investment results in poor research funding and stifles innovation. Weak research support systems mean researchers carry huge administrative burdens. Some research governance and regulatory systems are cumbersome. It’s hard to have a career in research in such an environment.

Three undesirable outcomes are the result:

l Limited, “less expensive” research, not necessarily addressing relevant local challenges

l Inequitable, externally funded collaborations where the African researcher is the data or sample collector for researchers in western institutions

l Movement of people to better paying, equipped and funded western institutions.

Of the 10 countries in the world that lose more than half of their medical graduates to work abroad, six are in sub-Saharan Africa. This means Africa loses health workers as well as potential clinical researchers.

My proposed barometer would identify African countries where the research ecosystem is poor, and brain drain is a significant problem and highlight policies and circumstances contributing to these. The barometer would also identify best practice in countries that score well in these, for sharing across the continent.

The large number of existing ranking systems is evidence of their value. For example, the Afrobarometer measures public attitudes on democracy, governance, the economy and society; and the Africa Learning Barometer analyses the state of education and learning.

It is therefore a surprise and an oversight that there’s no such tool for the national ease and capacity of conducting research. Ultimately, the barometer I propose is not about competition. It’s about creating signposts on the road to functional national research ecosystems, celebrating excellence and addressing weakness along the way.

The barometer would include all science disciplines. It would measure among others, the state of national research governance, including all research foundations and academies, research policies - including procurement and importation, ethical review and sample sharing processes/policies. It would also look at number and type of research institutes and their infrastructure. Other important factors to measure are systems for research uptake and implementation; local research financing; and salaries, benefits and job satisfaction among scientists.

Going forward

Setting up the barometer requires time and investment, but its impact on the African research ecosystem will far outweigh the cost.

Implementation could follow the WHO Africa National Health Research Systems Barometer model where input data is collected from ministries of health via WHO country offices. The data collection pipeline can use links between tertiary education, science, innovation and technology ministries, the African Union, Regional Economic Community or UNESCO country representatives.

This all requires buy-in and a commitment from African stakeholders and national governments.

A well-constructed and fully adopted Research Excellence Barometer for Africa would guide the continent to support the right research, by the right people, in the right places, and for the right reasons. It would contribute to retaining talent and expertise and ensure that Africans benefited from their own research efforts.