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Mapping Research Infrastructure to Enhance the Resilience of Science Systems in Sub-Saharan Africa

 

Project Duration:  October 2020 – April 2022
Grantor:  International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
ATPS Contact Person: Dr. Nicholas Ozor, Executive Director, ATPS
Contact Email: nozor@atpsnet.orgexecutivedirector@atpsnet.org

Partners:

Prof. Jonathan Mba; PI, Association of African Universities (AAU)

Dr. Nicholas Ozor, African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS)

Dr. Chux Daniels, Sussex University

Dr. George Owusu Essegbey, Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI), CSIR

Dr. Flora Ismail Tibazarwa, Southern Africa Innovation Support (SAIS)

Project Value: USD 150,575.00

INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

In Africa, it is common knowledge that the infrastructure – facilities, resources and services – used by the science community to conduct research and foster innovation and development are inadequate. The need for robust research infrastructure both physical and virtual is increasingly more urgent given the global crisis occasioned by the 2019 COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has affected every aspect of life[1] and changed our traditional ways of doing things. COVID-19 will profoundly change the world, as we know it, and mark a remarkable turnaround, globally. Currently, millions of jobs have been threatened as a result of this pandemic, with some jobs functions now extinct – almost overnight. At the same time, technology for example has been a source of new jobs. It has been estimated that technology will also be a source of over 133 million new jobs – this is the opportunity that Africa must not miss (AfDB, 2020a). Therefore, it is vital that research and supporting infrastructure in Africa are strengthened to enhance resilience across the science systems, and help protect lives and economies while fostering growth and sustainability (UNECA, 2020).

Despite the challenges, COVID-19 presents “the appropriate moment for our [Africa’s] HEIs to move decisively to institutionalize technology-based teaching and learning” (AAU, 2020; ITU/UNESCO, 2019), and embrace the opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) (Ozor, 2020). This can be possible in an STI ecosystem of appropriate infrastructures, reliable expertise and a supportive policy regime. COVID-19 has hampered meaningful access to the few facilities, resources and related services that are used by the scientific community to conduct top-level research in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Although Africa can boast of some of the best world-class and highly skilled scientists, the continent lacks robust research infrastructure and ecosystems for cutting-edge research that will be suitable to retain these skilled scientists work in Africa. This is a disincentive and sparks the wave of brain drain on the continent. This gap, heightened by COVID-19 makes urgent the need for both physical and virtual research infrastructures, whose development are internally driven within African nations, sub-regions or at the continental level. Virtual research infrastructures, for example, provide the ability to work from anywhere and anytime, as well as help to achieve greater reach in research scope and collaborative opportunities. Given our mandates as continental and regional bodies and affiliates for African HEIs and research organisations, our involvements in relevant continental research and science initiatives such as the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) and Africa Higher Education Centres of Excellence for Development Impact (ACE Impact) as well as our roles in policy supports to African governments in HEIs and R&D, our consortium (AAU and its partners) are best suited to investigate the gaps and opportunities in the area of research, innovation and STEM infrastructures in SSA and proffer evidence-based and implementable recommendations to inform possible next steps in addressing the gaps while harnessing the opportunities.

[1] From education and health, to economic, political, socio-cultural, religious, manufacturing, transportation, oil and gas, aviation, communication and many other sectors

RATIONALE

The role of research and innovation (R&I) and STEM in socio-economic development have been acknowledged by the African Union Commission (AUC) as articulated in relevant frameworks such as the Science Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024), Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 2016-25), and the Agenda 2063 (AUC, 2014, 2015a/b). Infrastructure is central to R&I and STEM systems. Together, R&I and STEM are essential for transformative change across sectors, systems and societies (Daniels, 2020). Although Africa accounts for about 15% of the global population, the global R&I output remains at about 2%, while the share of global disease burden stands at about 25% (Schemm, 2013). As various sources of evidence indicate, Africa lags in STEM/research infrastructure (AUC, 2020; AfDB, 2020b; Spyridoni et al, 2015).

Despite the gaps in R&I and STEM, there is progress in the number of initiatives across Africa such as SGCI, Research Management by the AAU, the Good Financial Grants Practice (GFGP), and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), an initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS). In addition, initiatives such as Promoting Africa-EU Research Infrastructure Partnerships (PAERIP), the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, and the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) contribute to efforts aimed at addressing the challenges and strengthening the R&I systems. The findings from the proposed work will contribute to strengthening the collaboration and partnerships among these actors and others. The interventions resulting from the mapping exercise are expected to contribute to the evolution in collaborations among stakeholders and potentially add to the evidence that points to the strengthening of research and science systems in SSA and that international research partnerships and ownership are starting to be transferred to Africans (Chataway et al., 2017, 2019). 

COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of digital infrastructure and exposed deep inequalities and digital divides. Africa is poorly equipped in areas such as cloud and edge computing facilities that allow for real-time collaboration environments, high-speed mobile networks, data, and internet connectivity (Alliance for Affordable Internet, 2019). Modern and fully equipped classrooms enabled with digital technologies are essential to success in HEIs in order to ensure effective teaching and learning, particularly in the COVID-19 era and going forward. World-class research infrastructure is expensive and requires funding, highly-skilled scientists (human resource and capabilities), policy and regulation and enabling ecosystem. Below, we discuss four aspects – funding, human resources and capabilities, policies and regulations, and ecosystems strengthening – to help illustrate some of the areas that this research will focus on.

Funding

In appreciation of the important roles that R&I and STEM play in socio-economic development, African governments set the goal to invest at least 1% of GDP in R&D. Although there is progress in some countries, with the R&D as a ratio of GDP close to the 1% target in a few; the majority of the continent remain below the 0.5% mark, with some countries still at the 0.1-0.2% mark (AUDA-NEPAD, 2019). Whilst Africa struggle to achieve 1% of GDP in R&D, other regions are well beyond this mark. The financing gaps witnessed in Africa’s higher education, science, technology and innovation (HESTI) and R&D have caused a major challenge in meeting its education and skill needs (Ozor, 2020). The EU is for example enjoining countries to attain 3% of GDP. More importantly, the issue is about the magnitude of resources the percentage of GDP translates into. Africa therefore needs to double her efforts and do more. Several financing mechanism and models have been crafted to spur growth of technological innovations that are needed to contribute and support HESTI and R&D in creating employability, skills and productivity in the labour market (Mugwagwa et al., 2019).

Financing mechanisms and models include public sector funding from government as well as private sector (industry, business), philanthropic organizations and partnerships between HEIs and actors from these stakeholder groups. Local mobilization of funding for STI is crucial. However, this can be complemented significantly in forging international partnerships and taking advantage of bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements (Oti-Boateng et al, 2016). Excellence in R&I and STEM are vital to ensuring that Africa is better equipped to address her challenges, ensure the resilience of her science systems, realise her development aspirations and contribute to achieving the SDGs (Chataway and Daniels, 2020; Daniels et al, 2020a/b; Kraemer-Mbula et al, 2020).

HUMAN RESOURCE AND CAPABILITIES

Strengthening research involves interventions at individual, organisational and ecosystems levels – all of which contribute to the overall research infrastructure. The current trends in skills production particularly in the higher education show low percentages of graduates in STEM which do not match with the labour demand and have continuously posed challenges in re-positioning Africa’s growth and development pathways (Daniels et al, 2020a; Ozor, 2020; Ozor et al, 2016). With huge shortage of STEM and digital skills in Africa, the human capital has remained constrained in preparing future development of skills that are relevant for HESTI and R&D. A recent political and economic study found that human resource (HR) – skills and capabilities – are a cross-cutting issue that affects every aspect of research and science systems in SSA (Daniels et al, 2020a; see also Chataway et al, 2019). Prior empirical evidence from SSA had revealed that individual and organisational capabilities coupled with high-quality infrastructure are vital to the functioning of good innovation systems (Ozor, 2020; Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, 2006). It is therefore essential that gaps in research skills and capabilities (including those related to digital), training, and opportunities for mentorship and peer support are identified and addressed as a matter of urgency.

POLICY AND REGULATION

Policies and regulations impact on research ecosystem and practices, and thereby shape and influence research in many ways. Poor governance structures and ineffective policies currently in place in most African countries do not adequately support HESTI, R&D and entrepreneurship development essential for the development of competent skilled human capital for employment, increased productivity and sustainable livelihoods. The education systems and workforce development strategies and policies in place are in need of reforms (AFDB, 2019). Issues to do with gender balance, curriculum management and administration need to be streamlined in a way that support skills development (Ozor, 2020). Policies and regulations also have a bearing on the institutional frameworks that govern research infrastructure. COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the importance of digital infrastructure (notably, broadband infrastructure challenges in Africa’s HEI’s, and the lack of e-learning platforms hardware e.g. computing and ICTs, and software) and their roles in development – from education and health, to service delivery, manufacturing and other sectors. In realisation of the importance of digital infrastructures in achieving Africa’s economic objectives, the AUC in May 2020 launched the Digital Transformation Strategy (DTS) for Africa (2020-2030) (AUC, 2020). This is a very important step, because, as COVID-19 has revealed, digital infrastructure, will become ever more important in the future. However, the AUC launch of the DTS is an eloquent acknowledgement of gaps in digital research infrastructures and the need to strengthen existing digital systems. This is crucial for the competitiveness and survival of African nations, in the 4IR era.

ECOSYSTEM

A gap that has been consistently identified in research and STI studies is the weak linkages among research and STI actors and stakeholders in SSA. Ecosystem actors in this sense include research institutions, innovation agencies, technology hubs, EdTechs, Fablabs, private sector (industry), government, investors (angel, impact, VCs, governments, donors), technology and innovation (T&I) entrepreneurs, intermediaries, and policy champions. We know that the link between HEIs (university in particular) and industry is vital to innovation, industrialisation and socio-economic development. Among other functions, industry (including firms and business) can and do: 1) fund research in HEIs but also within their operations, 2) provide physical and virtual infrastructure directly to HEIs or can have HEIs use their infrastructure, and 3) contribute to HR development via e.g. training and capacity building. If industry in SSA are not (adequately) playing these roles in Africa’s HEI’s, this research project could identify why and how the gaps could be addressed.

Weak linkages among these actors have led to fragmentation and silo approach to work. Vital interactions among the actors, which when effective, precipitate the necessary innovations, are either weak or absent. This impacts on R&I in various ways including, the approach to research, availability of funding for research infrastructure, including the low levels of R&I funding contribution from industry actors; the ways capabilities are built, commercialisation of research and the innovation outputs, development impacts and long-term resilience of science systems. Research, innovation and STEM commitments in development planning must translate into effective policy formulation and implementation along with the vital monitoring and evaluation systems. 

RESEARCH QUESTIONS, OBJECTIVE AND HYPOTHESIS

From the foregoing, some of the key questions to be investigated include: What are the gaps in the current research infrastructure landscape in SSA, and why do these gaps exist? What are the existing and emerging research infrastructures that HEIs can benefit from? In what ways do existing policies and regulations foster/hinder improvements in research infrastructure in SSA’s research and science institutions and why? In what ways could the R&I and STEM ecosystems be strengthened to contribute to achieving Africa’s development goals while enhancing resilience across the science systems? What are the best practices for developing human resources for effective utilisation of research infrastructures to enhance development?

General objective

The overarching goal of the project is to investigate the current research infrastructure landscape, both physical and virtual, in Africa and make recommendations to guide the formulation, implementation and governance of new policies and practices, as well as revision of existing ones, in this area.

Specific objectives

The following specific objectives will guide the areas of investigations proposed and will make new links to key stakeholders from the continent and beyond with an interest in the topic.

  1. Identify gaps in research infrastructure that hinder the growth and resilience of robust research systems in SSA, including specific disciplinary fields or communities of practice therein.
  2. Identify the existing and emerging research infrastructures that SSA HEIs can benefit from, and opportunities for access to emerging research technologies on a global scale.
  3. Establish new links to key stakeholders from SSA and beyond (including public and private sector actors) with an interest and an ability to mobilize knowledge or resources to improve access to and use of research infrastructure.
  4. Based upon the foregoing objective, we hypothesize that there are gaps in the current research infrastructure landscape in SSA and the project will provide insights into them for possible policy and programmatic interventions.

METHODOLOGY

To achieve the objectives and areas of exploration encapsulated in the research questions above, the data collection to be deployed in mapping of research infrastructure to enhance the resilience of science systems in SSA project will be based on:

1) Extensive desk research of relevant literature [Work Package (WP1)];

2) Survey via online questionnaire [WP2];

3) Expert interviews with selected actors [WP3];

4) Workshop or focus group discussions [WP4];

5) Case studies on research infrastructure in selected HEIs [WP5]; and,

6) Dissemination and stakeholder engagement, [WP6].

GENDER CONSIDERATIONS

As indicated above, higher education (HE), gender and inclusivity considerations will be crucial to the project and treated as cross-cutting issues. Research, STI and STEM fields hold some of the worst records in gender and the inclusivity of women and girls (Brown and Bogiages, 2019; Mba, 2018; Chien and Chu, 2017; Mba et al, 2015). The research methodology will address the issues of gender by ensuring that a) gender is addressed in the research design and access to research infrastructures, b) the research activities outlined go beyond representation and is based on active participation, and c) achieves an approximate 50:50% ratio. In line with the AAU policy of gender equality, the research infrastructures project will strive for an operationalisation of research infrastructures study that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The approach to integrating gender throughout research infrastructures project is through the dual-prong approach of mainstreaming and side-streaming. In this respect, the research infrastructures mapping study will explore who has control over equipment and access to it; how access to research infrastructures affects early careers of men and women; and how access to research infrastructures affects diversity and inclusivity in the research system more generally in SSA. Additionally, in both the composition of the consortium membership and selection of interview respondents for the research infrastructures mapping study, gender consideration will be central.

ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Ethical approvals will be secured by the AAU as the lead of the research consortium from all those respondents who will participate in the workshops or focus group discussions. To this end, AAU will inform them of the purpose of the study and the confidentiality of the information they will provide, and that they will have the liberty to refuse to answer any question(s) that they deem unnecessary or feel uncomfortable about. Importantly, the interviewees will be free to opt out of the interviews if they so desire. The confidentiality permission will be secured with each respondent before the commencement of the discussions or interviews, completion of survey questions or participation in the workshops (of FGDs).

 EXPECTED RESULTS

  1. Report: The main deliverable from the project will be a report.
  2. Policy brief(s):
  3. As a result of the project, the capacity of the interns, early career researchers and research fellows will be built on the ramifications of data collection and analysis since they will be involved in all aspects of the Work Area activities.
  4. The findings of the project will enable easy identification of research infrastructures, and hence opportunities for shared infrastructure and access to resources.
  5. Journal papers: An academic journal article (open access) will be sent to international mainstream journals like the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, African Journal of STI and Development, and Science and Public Policy.
  6. Blogs: Blogs and news articles.

These outputs will contribute to enhancing knowledge on the topic of research infrastructure in Africa, help change the discourse on research and science systems and the relationship with resilience, and support dissemination efforts.

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