Research projects are left in limbo as donors halt funding to the African Academy of Sciences, writes Gilbert Nakweya.
Major African research projects have been disrupted as international donors have withdrawn funding from the continent’s science academy due to a long-running governance crisis, a SciDev.Net investigation has found.
Science and research programmes have been moved from the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) to a newly established rival organisation – the Science for Africa Foundation.
Research funding on hold
However, millions of dollars in funding have been put on hold, affecting research across the continent, according to insiders familiar with the governance crisis.
Researchers say vital projects have been left in limbo as donors grapple with the problem.
But a newly established science foundation that has taken control of programmes stripped from the academy is bringing over many of the former AAS senior management staff and has been unable to issue any guarantee it won’t face similar problems.
Crisis at the academy
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the eyes of the world turned towards research, the AAS was in turmoil. Instead of beefing up its ranks, it was culling operational staff, while the futures of up to 2,000 research fellows were plunged into doubt.
Interviews with former staff members, as well as documents seen by SciDev.Net, paint a picture of an organisation in disarray.
One former AAS staff member, who was made redundant along with around half of the academy’s 100 employees, told SciDev.Net that losing their job during a pandemic was “devastating”.
Projects grind to a halt
The collapse in confidence in the AAS and the resulting financial disruption has meant many projects are in hiatus.
Sharon Fonn tells SciDev.Net that the lack of certainty in science is driving Africa’s “brain drain”.
“Africans need to know their future is secure in Africa,” Fonn said. “The brain drain is regrettable – but it shows that potential is everywhere and should be developed everywhere.”
Fonn is the co-director of the AESA-funded Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), an initiative that seeks to train multidisciplinary researchers as a way of improving public and population health.
AESA funding and CARTA
She said the halt in AESA funding has affected her project, which was funded under the DELTAS training scheme. Funding dried up after the first five-year phase of CARTA was ending under the first phase of DELTAS. An application granted under DELTAS Two – which was due to be disbursed in January 2021 – has not yet been delivered, she said.
CARTA has been unable to admit a new cohort of 25 PhD fellows, Fonn said. “We have also delayed admission of post-doctoral research fellows,” she said.
“We really need critical masses of PhDs and research fellows to realise change in Africa. Research should be applied to finding solutions to challenges facing the continent, like public health problems. We become responsive to social needs by training the next generation of researchers.
“The delay or withdrawal in funding has interrupted the dynamics of our strategy of building critical masses of researchers in Africa.”
Funding the future
Major donors have confirmed to SciDev.Net that they had pulled funding from the AAS due to governance concerns.
A spokesperson for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told SciDev.Net that the organisation made the “difficult decision alongside other funders to close many of our grant agreements with the African Academy of Sciences” in 2021.
“This was due to governance challenges that made it difficult for the programs run under the AESA platform to continue without disruption,” the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for Sida, the Swedish international development agency, said that its support for Grand Challenges Africa ended as AESA programmes were removed from under the AAS.
“This support ended on 31 July, 2021, because of the decision that programmes of AESA, including the Grand Challenges Africa programme, would transition from the AAS to a new organisation that is currently under setup,” the spokesperson said. “Sida is involved in conversations with all stakeholders participating in the transition process.”
Funding AAS/AESA programmes
A Wellcome spokesperson told SciDev.Net: “We’re continuing to fund programmes that were delivered by the AAS/AESA, but due to ongoing governance challenges at the AAS, we have appointed PwC Kenya to administer the funding on an interim basis. In the longer term, we would like to come to an agreement with an appropriate Africa-based organisation to manage these programmes.”
While these programmes had already begun to appear on the SFA Foundation website and job openings at the foundation were popping up across Africa’s employment websites, public announcements about the programme transfers did not come until July.
Wellcome announced that it would deliver £6.5 million (US$7.8 million) in “core funding” over the next five years and the SFA Foundation would “initially” take on the management of three Wellcome-funded grants initiatives – H3Africa, DELTAS Africa, and COVID-19 R&D – under which the foundation would be responsible for disbursing “up to” £5 million (US$5 million) under these initiatives.
While the announcement did not mention the second phase of DELTAS, Wellcome told SciDev.Net in a statement: “We’re fully committed to Deltas II. We understand that teams have been waiting to get started and we know this can be difficult. We hope to be able to provide more information on the start of the programme in the coming months.”
Science leaders outside of the AAS and SFA Foundation say they are taking note of the causes of the crisis in order to avoid such troubles within their own ranks.
Bi Crépin Pene, technical advisor to the president of Côte d’Ivoire’s Academy of Sciences, Arts, African Cultures and Diasporas (ASCAD), said that both financial partners and African scientists must be reassured that research bodies are operating professionally.
“The crisis within the AAS has no impact on the activities of ASCAD,” said Pene. “However, ASCAD will be able to draw lessons from it to further refine its governance in order to sustainably maintain a good climate of trust with not only its members but with its financial partners.”
In South Africa, eyes have also been on the turmoil in Kenya.
Managing large research grants
Himla Soodyall is the executive director of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). If proper management and auditing systems are in place, Soodyall tells SciDev.Net, then science academies can effectively manage large research grants.
However, she says that single-country academies are likely best equipped to handle large pools of money, rather than continental bodies. “When you have membership across countries, and staff from various countries supporting activities, I would imagine it would become difficult to follow a particular rule for compliance,” Soodyall said.
The SFA Foundation is expected to publish a detailed strategy – although the organisation did not provide information about when this will be released.
And as the AAS’ 2018-2022 strategy nears its end, questions continue to hang over the future of Africa’s eponymous science academy.