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Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa

15 Sep, 2015

AESA press conf

Last week the Wellcome Trust and the Department for International Development (DFID) announced funding for seven new research and training programmes under our Delivering Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa scheme. The focus of the programmes ranges from biostatistics, to malaria genetics, to mental health. This news formed part of a larger announcement of the launch of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) – a new initiative that shifts the centre of gravity for research funding decisions to Africa. Supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and DFID, AESA will drive the African Union’s science, technology and innovation strategy in the area of health. Sophie Mathewson, International Operations Adviser at the Wellcome Trust, explains why this is an evolution of our funding strategy and a step forward for science on the continent…

Abdoulaye Djimdé

Abdoulaye Djimdé, one of the first DELTAS Africa awardees. Credit: AAS

DELTAS Africa is a new scheme that aims to establish environments that will promote the production of world-class research at African universities, and create training opportunities for the next generation of African researchers. The first seven DELTAS awardees, funded for the next five years, were announced last week at a press briefing in Nairobi.

The awardees are spread across six countries in sub-Saharan Africa – Ghana, Kenya, Mali, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe – and, together with their co-awardees, they will help to create a network of research excellence across the continent.

Most people with an interest in global health are familiar with the need for research in HIV, TB and emerging infectious diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. They also recognise the leading role of African researchers in developing the treatments and interventions that have increased life expectancy in countries with the greatest burden of diseases such as HIV or malaria. Some of the new DELTAS Africa programmes will continue to respond to these needs, and will build on the longstanding collaborations between leading institutions within and outside of Africa.

However, while the high burden of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa is common knowledge, less attention is paid to the common mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which are associated with major chronic illnesses, including HIV. The DELTAS Africa programmes include awards to address diverse topics such as mental health, biostatistics and host-pathogen genetics.

These programmes have been funded for their excellent science, and because they bring together leading health researchers in these fields, working in institutions across the continent. They are also all examples of subjects that have been underrepresented in sub-Saharan research but which are no less important to researchers and the communities they serve.

By funding research training in these areas, we hope to advance scientific knowledge, so that we know more about the disease burden and effective interventions, but also to develop career opportunities for researchers in these fields so that they can begin to collaborate and advance the research agenda.

deltas imagesOn the surface, DELTAS Africa may sound like many of the activities that the Wellcome Trust has long supported in sub-Saharan Africa, including the African Institutions Initiative, our long-term funding of three Major Overseas Programmes in Africa, and the Public Health and Tropical Medicine Fellowships, of which we are rightly proud. The DELTAS scheme draws on this history, and continues a commitment to funding research in places where research will play a critical role in addressing major health and social challenges.

However, DELTAS Africa represents a clear evolution in the way in which the Wellcome Trust provides support to African researchers and our role as a funder on the continent.  Usually when the Wellcome Trust launches a call, most activities happen in London with the support of an international network of scientists as reviewers and committee members.

With this scheme, the Wellcome Trust has been working in partnership with a new organisation, the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), which is hosted by the African Academy of Sciences (an organisation based in Nairobi, Kenya but with a pan-African network) in partnership with NEPAD. AESA is funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation and DFID, with the common aim of supporting African science, both financially and in terms of policy and advocacy work from within the continent. We are working closely with our colleagues in Nairobi with the intention that eventually they will lead on managing the DELTAS initiative, and as they develop, future funding schemes.

AESABy working closely with the DELTAS Africa programmes, AESA will begin to address many of the issues that make the life of a scientist in Africa particularly challenging, such as under-developed research administration, reliance on funding from multiple donors and lack of clear pathways for research careers.

AESA will also be able to act as advocates to increase national governments’ funding for research, and for the greater use of research to inform policy.  In part, this reflects recognition that while the Wellcome Trust can exert influence and address issues that affect researchers in the UK, it may not be the most appropriate agent to foster change in research institutions across sub-Saharan Africa or to engage with African governments.

Much of what we have done over the last year has been daunting and required the ability to experiment, improvise and be ready to adapt. But this process has also been rewarding.  Over the last year, together with other colleagues at the Trust, I have seen the emergence of fully-fledged programmes from very early ideas. During last week’s inception meeting in Nairobi, we saw the initial encounters of researchers that we hope will form the basis of lasting relationships between the DELTAS Africa programme teams.

We are proud of the programmes that we are funding and look forward to their successes. Yet we also recognise that, five years from now, our own measure of success, will be that our colleagues in Nairobi are leading on, and advancing, the cause of research across the continent.

You can read more about the projects funded by the DELTAS Africa awards on our news pages, where you can also find out more about the launch of AESA.

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