A New Fund Pledges to Help Scientists in Africa Start Their Own Labs
A New Fund Pledges to Help Scientists in Africa Start Their Own Labs

A New Fund Pledges to Help Scientists in Africa Start Their Own Labs

A lack of resources ordinarily blocks young researchers on the continent from scholarly independence, but long-term support is no guarantee.

Apr 26, 2019
Munyaradzi Makoni

ABOVE: Left to right: FLAIR recipients Kanyiva Muindi, Lenine Liebenberg, and Leopold Tientcheu
AAS

Starting a research group is often not easy for early-career scientists in Africa. There are burdensome teaching loads and administrative duties, a shortage of research equipment, and insufficient funds to employ extra research staff. A new, £25 million program of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) based in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Royal Society in the UK funded by Global Challenges Research Fund seeks to change that.

On April 4, the Future Leaders - African Independent Research (FLAIR) program announced 30 inaugural recipients who will each get £300,000 (US $388,000) over the next two years.

“It’s not only money, but it’s also an investment into skills building and collaborations that I will get from this grant,” says one recipient, Lenine Liebenberg, an expert on mucosal immunology at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) in Durban.

“I am at that stage in my career where I have to distinguish my research career from my mentor’s,” she tells The Scientist. “I want that time to be away from teaching and administration to generating data for future research.”

Liebenberg is researching changes in the genital microbiomes and immune environment in couples after recently having sex, and how they aid sexually transmitted HIV. She plans to have two dedicated students on her team whose degree-related research will be paid for by the grant.

Kanyiva Muindi, a public health expert at the Nairobi-based African Population and Health Research Center who will be working with communities to reduce household air pollution, says the grant was “a rare opportunity to implement work she is passionate about.” Muindi plans to hire a researcher and a field team of 15 as they aim to deliver clean cookstoves to households and build the entrepreneurial capacity of women in rural areas.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics says countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend, on average, just 0.5 percent of their gross domestic product for R&D. That lack of investment ordinarily leaves most research funding sources coming from outside Africa. 

The reliance on funding from sources external to Africa means that the agenda is in most cases driven by the funder, Muindi says. “This limits young researchers who may not find a lot of opportunities in their particular fields, resulting in them being a ‘Jack of all trades’—working on any area that attracts funding as they wait for funding that focuses on their areas of interest,” she tells The Scientist. Judy Omumbo, AAS affiliates and post-doctoral programs manager, says the FLAIR research proposals submitted were driven by what researchers defined as priorities in the countries they work in.

Leopold Tientcheu, an immunologist and molecular biologist from Cameroon working at the Medical Research Council Unit in The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says the FLAIR grant came after going through “a rough patch” in applying for major international grants that are not ring-fenced for African scientists.

“The FLAIR will fast-track my transition into an independently funded scientist. I can now recruit a research student and expand my research on tuberculosis,” he tells The Scientist.

Tientcheu’s research focuses on identifying human host immunological markers that can be targeted by immunomodulatory drugs as an adjunctive therapy to shorten the antibiotic TB treatment in West Africa. There, half of all TB is caused by Mycobacterium africanum, which responds poorly to antibiotic treatment compared to M. tuberculosis, which causes TB around the world. 

There are myriad impediments for a young scientist in Africa to set up an independent research group, says Paul Nampala, former grants manager at the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture in Kampala, Uganda. “Where they have been able to access funds and fit into a research group, it is with their mentors, [who] remain the senior supervisors of the research group. This, although welcome for purposes of continued mentorship, does not promise growth to the young scientist,” Nampala tells The Scientist.

For the FLAIR recipients to establish their research groups, long-term investments are critical, says Nampala. All grant holders are subject to a review by UK funders, says Lesley Miles, the Royal Society’s chief strategy officer. If researchers can demonstrate some success within the two-year funding period, they can be considered for further funding. 

Clarification (April 30): We replaced a quote from Leopold Tientcheu describing funding in Africa to more accurately reflect his perspective on the FLAIR grant and added information on his research topic.