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Trump’s proposed science funding cuts spell bad news for African research

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Trump’s proposed science funding cuts spell bad news for African research

Sarah Wild

04 Aug 2017

5min min read
U U

S President Donald Trump’s anti-science stance could possibly be a blessing in disguise for research on the African continent. But if it is, it is a very good disguise. 

Trump’s policies have pushed American science into the backseat, which means that the US’s international science involvement in African countries is likely to be jettisoned from the car entirely - becoming a non-priority.

Trump’s 2018 budget request would see widespread funding cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And in June, the world’s largest economy withdrew from the Paris climate accords, through which countries hope to halt the emission of greenhouse gases and the warming of the planet.

Scientists in the US in April took to the streets to protest their president’s slashing of science and research funding, his disavowal of climate change, and dubious partisan appointment to key agencies such as the EPA. Tens of thousands of people marched in defence of science on April 22, organised to coincide with Earth Day — an annual event aimed at raising awareness of environmental issues and climate change. 

The organisers said: “When science is threatened, so is the society that scientists uphold and protect.” That society extends beyond the borders of the US. The US is a juggernaut of international science: it spends more on science than any other country, it publishes the most papers and its science programmes — particularly its health and capacity building initiatives — span the globe. The US’s Fogarty International Center, for example, specifically funds health research in developing countries, and Trump wants to shut it down completely.

Many African countries rely on these programmes and the funding they bring. For example, the NIH is the largest funder of medical research in South Africa, the continent’s scientific powerhouse, says Linda Nordling, editor of Research Africa. This reliance is even more prevalent in other African countries with less diversified science systems.

Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population and 5% of the world’s gross domestic product, but accounts for just 1.3% of global investment in research and development.

According to the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population and 5% of the world’s gross domestic product, but accounts for just 1.3% of global investment in research and development.

Former African Union (AU) chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has consistently voiced her support for science. At Science Forum South Africa in 2015, she said: “In terms of African development, do we want to go back to the industrial revolution, or use science to leapfrog? We don’t want to be the recipients of technology. We want to manufacture, so we need science to do that.

“Everything that is a priority for the African Union needs science … I cannot think of anything we are doing that does not need science.”

To this end, the AU has an ambitious decadal science programme, the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024). But, as is common with bureaucratic schemes, the wheels of progress turn slowly and in the three years since its inception, there is little tangible to show for its efforts. 

But initiatives like AESA, established in 2015 by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Agency and the African Academy of Sciences with the support of the Wellcome Trust, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), are making more headway. AESA has become something of a repository for donor-funded capacity building and research support. In April, it announced an initiative to train African post-doctoral candidates, through a $2 billion grant from the Carnegie Corporation.

But philanthropic grants are likely to be the seeds of African science. Scientists need money and infrastructure, which is something that their governments are slow to provide. A recent report from the African Capacity Building Foundation highlights the urgent need for government-driven science and research funding.

The problem with foreign-country funding is that the funder gets to dictate what research you do, which may not be the research that a country — or continent — needs. Home-grown funding ensures a home-grown research agenda.

Nordling, who has spent her career reporting on African science policy, is dubious about whether Trump’s science budget cuts would see African countries picking up the shortfall. “It is more likely science will simply suffer. I doubt many countries can match the spend,” she says.

“The added problem is that even if Africans suddenly had the money to spend, they have no grant infrastructure via which to hand it out. That takes years to build and is why countries vow to raise their R&D spend,” she notes. Those vows seldom manifest into action, though.

Mahama Ouedraogo, head of the science and technology division in the African Union Commission, is more optimistic: “The steady economic growth in Africa should boost the putting in place of science, technology and innovation funds, which was called for within STISA 2014. 

“The commission and its partners will therefore continue advocating for increased investment in science education, research and innovation as a prerequisite for African development,” he says. 

“The African Union believes that the transformation of Africa can be done only through the application of science and science result.”

This needs money. The threat of a cut in US science funding at home — if realised — is very concerning for African research. While there are other international collaborators — such as countries in the European Union and the United Kingdom — they also have their own domestic concerns, with Brexit looming large on the horizon.

But perhaps the threat of a cut offers African countries a chance to come into their own, and build their science, technology and innovation capacity from within. If it did that, the continent could not only become less reliant on foreign money and good will, but it could chart its own science path and develop research on its own terms.

(Main image: Getty/Josh Edelson/AFP)