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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


COVID-19: how much do local science system capabilities matter in Africa?

By c.washbourne, on 6 April 2020

By Julius Mugwagwa, Carla-Leanne Washbourne, Remy Twiringiyimana and Anne-Marie Kagwesage from the STECS Project Team, UCL & University of Rwanda

Science matters

Colleagues from UCL and the University of Rwanda are nearing the end of the STECS research project in which we were investigating and unpacking the role, relevance and contribution of African science councils in national development. The role of science in economic development is widely recognised across Africa, and is amply ingrained in continental agendas and programmes such as the African Union’s Agenda2063 and STISA-2024, as well as national institutions and resource deployments.

In order to strengthen the role and contribution that science can make to national, continental and global causes, the African Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI) has been supporting science granting councils or national science councils in 15 sub-Saharan African countries through various capacity strengthening activities which include development and use of research management tools, use of innovation indicators, partnerships with the private sector and enhanced networking of country-level science granting councils. Challenges such as the current COVID-19 global health pandemic are presenting both challenges and opportunities for science communities globally.  In the African countries that were part of the STECS project, we have started to witness the role and location of the science community’s voice in public discourses on the pandemic. What remains unclear for us though is the science advice input behind the public health actions taking place in the countries.

Relevance is key

One of the persistent challenges for the scientific community in Africa, and developing countries broadly, is that of relevance – relevance of the conceptual tools they use, the priorities they tackle and the evidence that they generate – to local societal challenges. Proponents of knowledge decolonisation agendas have championed the need to ‘move from the notion of low- and middle-income countries as recipients of in-bound knowledge and technologies, or empirical fodder for Western theoretical framings’, to having them as creators, champions and credible voices in locally-led developmental agendas in these countries.

The question of relevance sits at the junction of many contending issues, not only a global knowledge space dominated by framings and perspectives from rich countries as alluded to above, but also limited and often dwindling resources from developing countries for the research areas that address their core and urgent needs. By strengthening the capacities of science councils to govern and fund research in African countries, the SGCI in our view, works to not only upend conventional research hierarchies and promote local research agenda setting, but will also strengthen the relevance of research to local challenges and increase the contribution of African scientists to the global knowledge capital.

Beyond health, COVID-19 is a challenge for African science systems

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) situation report of 1 April 2020 shows a total of 653 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the 9 countries that participated in the STECS project, with Burkina Faso (246), Senegal (175), Rwanda (75), Uganda (44), Kenya (59), Zambia (35), Namibia (11), Mozambique (8), and Malawi (0).

While we live in an era of globalisation and interconnectedness, and while the shutting down of national borders and restrictions on transnational as well as local travel may not curtail knowledge flows, the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a new season of currency for local capabilities. It is not only a dialogue between trust and relevance which undergird localness, but that of an engagement with the proximity thesis in which helping those that are geographically and relationally close takes precedence over those that are further away. It therefore means that having those capabilities that can be harnessed and deployed in times of need such as this is not just a desirable option, but an imperative for countries in their individual and collective efforts to deal with societal challenges.

Science systems responding

Traditional and social media have been useful windows through which to view the early responses of different actors within the global science system. In the global north, we have visibly seen Chief Scientific Advisors and councils interfacing with politicians and medical teams to guide societal responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The role of knowledge from various realms of sciences has come to the fore, with its relevance and timely deployment being championed as key to a successful response. We have also seen rapid response calls for research coming from national funders such as the UK Research Councils (UKRI) and the wider science community, promoting relevant country-level research and providing advice and guidance.

In the African countries that were part of the STECS project, we have also started to witness the role and location of the science community’s voice in policy and practice discourses on COVID-19.  The Rwanda National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), has a regular TV program that aims to explain complex science and technology phenomena using simple terms in Kinyarwanda (Rwanda’s mother tongue) commonly known as BIKORA BITE ‘How does it work’. Through this, NCST has developed a TV spot to support public health guidance, for example in explaining the complex chemistry that makes soap a powerful tool in washing hands when used effectively1. The Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), through a tweet posted on 23rd March 2020, has contributed in spreading the communication of Uganda’s ministry of health guidelines on measures to combat the pandemic.

In the same vein, the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) of Kenya, National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) of Malawi, and the National Innovation Fund (FNI) of Mozambique, used their communication platforms to transmit the preventive measures from their respective governments. In Namibia, the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST) tweeted a notice on lockdown closure of their offices on 16 March 2020, in which they pledged to continue to follow the updates by the Ministry of Health and Social Services. They affirmed their commitment to compliment national efforts to deal with the pandemic, hence their implementation within the organisation of processes to support required actions such as working from home and availing services to stakeholders online.

Similarly, the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) issued a communique to its stakeholders on 25 March 2020, about the 21-day national lockdown announced by President Ramaphosa, and how the organisation would be complying with that, including reviewing its research proposal review processes with the view of these being undertaken remotely. The Scinnovent Centre (a development research and training organization in Kenya) have been promoting their work on whether and how the Africa’s pharmaceutical industry can become globally competitive in the aftermath of COVID-19, while the African Academy of Sciences’ ‘Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa’ have been tweeting about their recent webinar on R&D opportunities for COVID-19 in Africa and providing a portal recording ongoing scientific initiatives on COVID-19 in Africa.

SGCI released a statement on 30th March outlining that the “novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic presents a significant global challenge, requiring close science-policy-society proximity. The scientific enterprise is being called upon to collectively diagnose, offer solutions and advice in the context of uncertainty and complexity.” In this statement SGCI reiterate the importance of continuing to strengthen the capacities of science granting councils and research systems, setting out an offer of broad-based short- and medium-term support for science granting councils, governments and research communities that includes science advice and innovation at a national and regional level and support in developing rapid response mechanisms for future crises.

Science in action is key

What comes out clearly so far is the diverse nature of the ways in which the SGCs are interfacing with their stakeholders, and in some cases the wider public, on the pandemic. What remains unclear, however, is whether or how they or the scientific communities they represent are involved in informing or shaping decisions on the actions being rolled out at national level, as is the case in high-income countries, for example the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

In the African context, while the public sector through frontline healthcare workers, other government agencies, the formal and informal sectors are all changing their practice to enforce social distancing while keeping community life moving, it would be key to see how science – in its various forms from social, natural, economic, medical and engineering sciences, among others – figures in these actions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is catastrophe for the global human population and will inevitably leave societies different from how they have been before now. There is a long recovery phase ahead for economies and health systems, and how science systems in Africa will play relevant and sustained roles in response and recovery, time will tell. It will also be a defining test of the relevance and effectiveness of the training and other forms of support that the SGCI and other actors are providing to SGCs.

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