BY SIOBHAN CHAN
London — A £15.3 million (US$24 million) fund to build links between African research laboratories and strengthen their research capacity through mentoring has been launched by the Royal Society (the UK’s science academy) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
The aim is to provide equipment and training for African scientists, and to establish researcher exchange programmes between the United Kingdom and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Start-up grants of up to US$39,000 will assist the formation of research consortia, and larger grants of almost US$2 million will then support specific research programmes over a five-year period.
To qualify for the larger grants, projects must involve a consortium of one UK laboratory and three African laboratories.
“At the moment, labs in Sub-Saharan Africa are isolated. For example, it is surprisingly difficult for a lab in South Africa to work with a lab in Ethiopia, as the funding streams aren’t there,” Martyn Poliakoff, foreign secretary and vice-president of the Royal Society, told SciDev.Net. “There are also physical barriers, such as the need to fly between different countries.”
“We hope the initiative will foster collaboration between these labs and help them to use their limited resources better. The UK lab will adopt a mentoring role, as it will have facilities that others don’t have, and experience of working as part of a research consortium.”
The Royal Society-DFID Africa Capacity Building Initiative will mainly fund research focusing on water and sanitation, renewable energy, and soil, and it will encourage a cross-disciplinary approach to research.
It will build on the “extremely effective” Leverhulme-Royal Society Africa Awards, which were launched in 2008 to support research collaborations between the UK and Ghana or Tanzania, according to Poliakoff. But it will also expand the number of countries involved, and include French-speaking countries.
“The Leverhulme awards and the Royal Society initiative will run in parallel, so the two schemes can learn from one another,” Poliakoff added.
“We hope that this will encourage other funding agencies and countries to promote capacity building for research in Africa,” Poliakoff said.
John Omiti, principal policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, welcomed the funding initiative: “This is very important in [helping] energise African scientists to pursue research that is relevant and sensitive to specific priorities in different scientific disciplines”.
“This [emphasises a] renewed international interest in Africa,” he said, adding that it “would also attract scientists in the African diaspora to focus, share and exchange scientific knowledge with scientists and researchers in Africa”.
But Omiti also warned that the extent of the fund’s positive effect on science in Africa will depend on how effectively the money is allocated to research that impacts on real problems on the ground. The dissemination of research results and their use both to inform policy and to assist people in moving “from misery into liveable conditions” was also important, Omiti said.
He added that he hoped the initiative would become sustainable and not just a “single shot at invigorating African scientific research”.
Applications for grants will open in November 2012.
Additional reporting by Ochieng’ Ogodo.