Africa needs basic science

Why science can save the future - not just the people - of these impoverished nations.

By | July 1, 2008

The positive memories of my first trip to Africa will last long in my memory. The negative ones, specifically the traveler's diarrhea that I've just recovered from, won't, although it did symbolize for me how much of a blight infectious diseases are. Progress in the life sciences matters to the daily lives of Africans in ways that we can't begin to fathom.

The good news is that substantial investment is beginning to pay dividends both in the development of new therapies and in delivering them through effective, integrated healthcare interventions. There is a palpable air of optimism, exemplified by the cautious use of the e-word in relation to malaria for the first time in 40 years. E as in eradication.

Efforts to control infectious diseases need to be doubled and redoubled. But other monstrous problems must also receive attention.

First, there's chronic malnutrition and the need to secure the food supply. Huge numbers of people are constantly on the brink of disaster. Right now, Ethiopia and Somalia at the tipping point of humanitarian crises.

Second, there's the specter of noninfectious diseases: cancer, diabetes, and chronic heart disease are as rampant in Africa today as they are elsewhere in the world, and obesity and mental health problems promise to run amuck tomorrow.

Third, African economies are in freefall. Over the past 50 years, the continent has soaked up $558 billion in aid with no noticeable effect. In 1970, 11% of Africans lived on $1 per day; by 2015, a staggering 68% may have to get by on that paltry sum.

For all three of these problems, as for infectious disease, research and development lie at the heart of the solutions. New tools must be developed while optimally applying existing ones. As things currently stand, however, there will be little or no contribution by African scientists working in Africa. That can, and should, be changed.

"African science" is almost a misnomer. Sure, there are pockets of outstanding research, but they are restricted to satellite institutions funded by overseas agencies and their (American and European) staff. African scientists do healthcare implementation work and even for that, according to the local people who I met on a recent trip to Uganda, "those who do the work and those who write it up are separate."

An African researcher who wants to perform cutting-edge laboratory research has essentially nowhere to go, and absolutely no funding is available to do noninfectious disease research. The well-trained scientist faces a stark choice: Work outside Africa or abandon your cutting-edge technologies and skills.

Why not build capacity in high-level basic research in sub-Saharan Africa? In time this could add a new research culture to the world, as China, India, South Korea, and others have done. These increasingly powerful science communities do not work exclusively on local issues. Think of stem cell research in South Korea, bioinformatics in India, genomics in China - all cutting-edge science that has obvious commercial potential.

In contrast, research in Africa is restricted to international initiatives addressing infectious diseases. Essential as this is, it is not enough. To see why, contrast the poverty rates given above for Africa with those of Southeast Asia: In 1970 56% of the population lived on a dollar per day, with an expectation to reduce it to 13% in 2015. While investment in the life sciences wasn't the first step to reducing poverty, it could be a giant one for Africa.

How might investment in basic research come about? Could a Max Planck Society institute (see a profile of the molecular genetics group) or a Salk Institute be persuaded to set up shop? Could the African nations, with African entrepreneurs, come together to build a facility to showcase what African research can do? Could this in turn attract pharma investment, a biotech community, contract research and manufacturing, VC money, the whole panoply of the life sciences enterprise? With the right commitment, the answer is yes.

The key step must be to get some decent seed funding for basic science. This might seem like a luxury but it isn't. It should be a central part of the strategy to dig Africa, and Africans, out of their perpetual nightmare.


Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

July 14, 2008

Africa, like the rest of the world, has been shaped by disease, and disease has shaped politics. The difference is that in Africa, several diseases are intractable in modern times (malaria, sleeping sickness, and now HIV) , and those that are tractable to some degree are enhanced by politics. (Measles, polio, HIV). In turn, politics enhances the problems of these diseases, in places that have never, ever, known the rule of law as our culture understands it. \n\nUnfortunately, the record of aid is that it ends up lining the pockets of violent tribal leaders. Zaire, the place Ebola re-emerges from regularly is a case in point, and Zaire is a relatively benign and calm nation. Leaders there are simply venal to the point of obscenity, rather than deliberately bent on destruction. \n\nThe politics, overall, are truly beyond imagining, with only a few exceptions (Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, Chad, Mali, Burundi, South Africa, Mozambique). And those listed as exceptions must have a caveat of, "for now". Unless one studies it for a while, any trip to Africa will not educate beyond tearing at heart strings. Slicing off of hands and feet, (architected by Foday Sankoh, who studied at Quaddaffi's school) child armies that literally ate each other (as in Liberia of the 90's), megalomaniacal dictators who deliberately slaughter and terrorize their own people (Amin, Sankoh, Mugabe, on and on), and destroy their country's economy by policy or neglect - all of it is an absurdist norm. \n\nHIV/TB continues to generate millions of orphans, with the total expected to hit 18 million by 2010 from 14 million a few years ago. Those orphans were never mentioned in "Blood Diamond", but they are key to understanding the madness that has gripped many of these nations. Give these boys (and some girls) a gun and some food, teach them to kill, and they willingly create revolution through atrocity - "putty in the hands" of warlords as the BBC put it. The well-intentioned should take a long hard look at putting money into schools and orphanages to secularize and raise these lost children to be productive members of society. Saving them, for instance, using drugs that prevent their mothers from giving them HIV, only to cast them onto the streets to live or die is a kind of madness that in a very real sense inoculates those nations where we do this with a different disease of violence and crime. I know this sounds horribly cold to say, but it is the facts and we must face them squarely, regardless of what we would like to hear. \n\nWe, as scientists, need to be more than simply well intentioned. We must be wise, and understand the big picture in Africa, or whatever funds we gather will come to worse than nothing. All that aid has gone for worse than nothing. It has fueled a corruption economy that views theft from the international community as a legitimate route to wealth and power. \n\nWe scientists though, coming from out ivory tower, familiar a degree of backstabbing, back-biting and gamesmanship of that milieu, are not entirely unequipped to understand the fundamental politics in Africa. Our politics bears a passing resemblance to the politics of such men, with but a few differences. In the developing world, those who lose out, die rather than just leave campus or get a job in industry. The grants we get are strictly regulated. And we have a system of law that constrains us. Their grants are not regulated at all internally. \n\nNo, I do not think we are entirely unequipped to understand the dark motives to grab wealth at any cost. It is rather like the desperation that drives some scientists to do unethical things that administrations wink at, in order to get grant funding. Rather than think we are not equipped to understand, it is my opinion that we scientists tend to be lacking in courage to face such things directly. We rarely do so in our own milieu, preferring to bow out far too often. The route to a chairmanship, provost's office or chancellor is generally not open to boat-rockers. I think we all know of a few matters that bother our conscience from time to time. We know that some scientists have attained fame with significant questions about exactly how things happened, and whether credit was properly given. (There are some exceptions here and there.)\n\nIt is this lack of courage combined with a view of the world outside of our own nations that is very idealized that generates our well-intentioned mistakes. \n\nThere are some very dedicated, kind, wonderful men and women who work very hard for their own in Africa. Some of them die ministering to the health of their people. But mixed in with them is a graft system that is pervasive and increases as one rises in rank. \n\nThe problems in Africa are not fundamentally because of neglect or exploitation by the West. (Or you may call it the North.) The problems of Africa are because of a complex of issues that may not be tractable, and certainly are not tractable by throwing money at them. \n\nBelieve me, I am very sympathetic to the idea expressed in this article. I have tried to do something myself, risking my life to do so in a part of the world more stable than Africa, but with its own gangster politics. I came away after years with very little, and only one thing I could really be proud of - that I had not participated in making the lives of those people worse. A few may have benefited, very few. \n\nThis matter of making things worse is very important to understand. Because if we, of the rich nations, throw money into a poor region, this grants wealth and consequent power to those who grab that wealth. The result is that the kind, good, honest people are disempowered. It is a rather horrible realization to come to. But this is the reality. \n\nThere is a book I can recommend by Janine Wedel, an anthropologist who happened to observe what happened in Eastern Europe. Her book discusses how things worked there, and is easier, I think, for most of us to relate to, because the people involved are more "like us" in obvious ways. Her stark description of how the huge amounts of money upended societies, added to corruption, and benefited the coffers of those receiving grants and contracts in the West is well worth reading. Because the fact is that aid money is also an industry that attracts Westerners to that honey exactly as it attracts the corrupt in Africa. Wether or not the Western version is corruption I will leave as an exercise for thr readers of Janine's book. \n\nI have come up with a metaphor for this. Imagine what would happen in the United States if China started sending over people to civilize us and "help" us, and they did so by doling out grants of $100 million to $500 billion. (I am correcting the amounts for the relative scale of USA versus African economies.) Alternatively, the grants could come in the form of a few million and Walmart sized loads of free food, clothing, medicine, computers, etcetera. Those who got these grants received them for three possible reasons. A. They could make the Chinese envoy cry and want to help. B. They could fill out forms in Chinese, and knew the right Chinese buzzwords to say. C. They had opposed the government of George W. Bush. \n\nThink about this scenario, and ask yourself, realistically, what kind of characters would get the money, and what effect that would have on the United States?
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

July 14, 2008

Those interested in aiding developing nations should be aware of Hans Rosling's work. \n\nHis graphs only track indicators. He does not attempt to answer why. It would be interesting to me to know what correlations there are between rate of economic progress over decades and level of aid received. Wedel identified an inverse correlation in Eastern Europe.

July 16, 2008

I totally agree with author's viewpoint on the current status of basic scientific research in Africa. I also commend the author's sincere appreciation that it is not due to lack of scientists but mainly due to lack of opprotunities to carry out basic research.\nAs an African scientist, I can also confess to that because most of the so called "aid money" is geared towards applied research. We know that these types of research are meant to improve livelihoods among communities but have little or no commercial value to the researchers themselves. Hence, most scientists tend to look for suitable places to do their cutting edge research outside Africa. \nHow and where to start fixing this problem might not be easy to contemplate. I believe that the few international research institutions distributed throughout Africa should be used as reference points. Their applied mandates should be revised to encompass some basic research, thereby, attracting scientists who might be still interested in basic research.\nAnother alternative would involve outsourcing elements of basic research that can be done within the limits of research infrastructure in Africa. This might inspire institutions to set up research departments and competetively bid for these contracts. I believe this might inspire a lot of interest in basic research and might revolutionize research capacity of African insitutions and scientists.\nI would like to see what type of response this proposal might generate. Thanks for highlighting this important subject.

July 18, 2008

I think this is a very interesting and important issue facing science today. Unfortunately, I don't think there are any good answers to this problem without a series of trial and inevitable errors and restarts. \n\nI recently came across the mention of a new website called Scientists without Borders (, which is trying a new idea to promote basic research in developing countries like Africa.\n\nThe basis for this website is an easy networking site to connect scientists in the developing world with scientists in developed countries to allow for sharing of resources, data and such.\n\nIt will be interesting to see how this project pans out.

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