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

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6th April 2020

Julius Mugwagwa




Featuring the research of:

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

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.

Read the full piece at UCL STEaPP