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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Science funding for crisis response and long-term resilience

By c.washbourne, on 5 February 2021

By Carla-Leanne Washbourne, Julius Mugwagwa, Remy Twiringiyimana and Anne-Marie Kagwesage

As we enter the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are still struggling to cope with ongoing and evolving challenges brought by the virus. Governments are actively responding, day to day, with new or improved guidance for their population, based on the most up to date understanding of the pandemic, drawing on cutting edge insights from a range of different research fields.

Medic in covid testing centre

“COVID-19 testing” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the shadow of this evolving crisis, the line between short term response and long-term sustained management has become more and more blurred. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbated by, runs in parallel to, and draws focus from many other critical and long-term social and environmental issues, including demographic shifts, urbanisation and the climate and extinction crises. Institutions tasked with supporting national systems of science and innovation have a huge role to play in the response to all of these challenges. For them, the pandemic presents both a great opportunity to generate and communicate technical insights, which could have real and immediate societal impact, and a challenge in allocating and mobilising resources to ensure a balance of short-term responsive issues and longer term developmental and strategic goals are being met.

As previously presented on this blog, the Science Granting Councils Initiative in sub-Saharan Africa (SGCI) Training Effectiveness Case Studies (STECS) Project was a 10 month programme of intensive research on science systems in sub-Saharan Africa funded by SGCI. It focussed on the role of Science Granting Councils, institutions which play a key part in resourcing and support scientific research and innovation. By SGCI’s definition, these organisations are both agents of government and represent the interests of a country’s scientific community. They disburse funds for research and development; contribute to building research capacity; set and monitor research agendas and priorities; regulate and coordinate research activities, advise on science, technology and engineering policies; manage research and innovation agreements and play an important role in understanding, and improving, the impact of publicly funded research.

Taking place between September 2019 and June 2020, the STECS Project was a collaboration between UCL STEaPP and the University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences. It was set up to study the influence of a variety of training and capacity strengthening activities by the multi-funder initiative SGCI on the activities of science granting councils in nine selected SGCI countries: Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia. STECS sought to understand if, and how, training and capacity strengthening offered by SGCI on topics including research management, partnerships and private sector engagement had been taken up and integrated into the work of the country-level science granting councils.

In its final report, the STECS project confirmed that SGCI’s activities to date have resulted in:

  • SGCs being more effective in their research management practices;
  • development and/or strengthening of partnerships between councils and other actors within their local research environment;
  • knowledge exchange with the private sector; and improved coordination and collaboration between the SGCs participating in SGCI.

Concurrent with the period of SGCI training, many of the SGCs saw concrete changes in their own roles in their national science ecosystems, including:

  • changes in efficiency and scope of funding allocation, including considerations of equality, diversity and inclusion;
  • the development or renewal of science, technology and engineering indicators to monitor the effectiveness of these sectors within the country and
  • increasing support for entrepreneurship and innovation across the private and public sectors.

Science granting council responses to the COVID-19 pandemic

In June 2020, just as the STECS project was wrapping up its work, the real scale and longevity of the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to become clear. Given the rapid onset and severity of COVID-19, understanding the response of SGCs could provide an important window on their role and importance during times of crisis. The STECS team was commissioned to move into a short responsive phase (between July and October 2020) to understand how SGCs across the nine study countries had been involved in the national responses to COVID-19. Of particular interest was the question: had the development of science, technology and innovation capacities in the councils enabled them to act more swiftly, more decisively or with greater impact in their response to the pandemic?

The early findings of this responsive work suggest that this is the case. The different SGCs clearly leveraged inter-SGC networking and partnership opportunities facilitated through SGCI, not least through the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund. Many SGCs were able to influence national responses either directly as members of national COVID-19 response taskforces or through feeding ideas, evidence and advice into designated response mechanisms. Meanwhile, all the SGCs were involved significantly in one way or another in funding mechanisms for research in response to the pandemic. The different ways in which the SGCs were involved were: lobbying for more government funding for science, in partnership with other science system actors; issuing, managing and evaluating calls for research proposals; and soliciting external funding for research.

This study reveals a number of key lessons with respect to deployment of organisational capabilities and institutional entrepreneurship among the SGCs in response to the COVID-19. Critical to this work is the imitable and complementary nature of the tools and skills from SGCI which allowed the SGCs to deploy incrementally developed innovations in response to a challenge which was sudden and potentially competence-destroying in its manifestation. Being skilled in research management in a robust and broad-based way allowed SGCs to be active in their national science ecosystems, which placed them in a good position to contribute to responses to the pandemic.

A new science-as-unusual era: from rapid response to long-term resilience in a protracted pandemic

While locally-relevant routines and procedures remain important, the pandemic highlighted the importance of building resilience, not just into socio-technical solutions, but also into policy and organisational capabilities; skills for long-term resilience which have also enabled SGCs to react and thrive in times of fast-paced and pervasive change.

As discussed previously on this blog, a ‘science-as-unusual’ imperative came into play as a precursor for rapid and sustainable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The persistence of the virus and its variants (with higher transmissibility rates in some instances) requires critical policies and decisions to invest in ST&I for rapid responses including continued research into vaccine development, manufacturing and administering value-chains. The surging anxieties from manifestations of ‘vaccine nationalism’ in the face of desperate demands for equity in the distribution of vaccines globally, brings to the fore the necessity for countries to rethink their commitment to science funding. Pragmatic decisions aimed at building resilience and responsiveness, not just in scientific research, but in innovation, technological and manufacturing capabilities for medical and health products, are a key dimension in the ‘science-as-unusual’ imperative.

With their convening, funding and governance mandates and capabilities, our argument is that SGCs are well-placed to play key roles in this regard.

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