Our scientists and engineers need their 1% of GDP committed in 2018 for R&D funding

Professor Douglas Boateng

Funding in Africa is in short supply – especially when it comes to Research and Development (R&D). This reality has never been more apparent than during the recent Coronavirus Pandemic.

When our scientists were called upon to provide their insights into developments on SAR-COV-2 and COVID-19, some were able to provide general responses. However, when asked to make factual, scientific contributions to discussions on the pandemic from an African perspective they were at a serious disadvantage. For the most part, they were forced to rely on external reports from their American, Asian, and European counterparts.

To date, the large majority of research conducted in Africa is not conducted by Africans. Instead, scientific and engineering research tends to be conducted by American and European scientists under their own affiliate institutions, using their own funding and co-partnering or subcontracting some of the study to qualified locals.

Chronic lack of R&D funding

Not only has SAR-COV-2 exposed the weakness of Africa’s public health systems, it has equally revealed a chronic lack of R&D funding – funding that is essential for the continent to become self-sufficient in the areas of pharmaceuticals, cosmeceuticals, agroceuticals, nutracetucials, phytoceutcals health care, food production, among others.

In May 2020, the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) reported that in 2006 African Union member states committed to spending at least 1% of their GDP on Research and Development (R&D). With the exception of South Africa, which in 2016 spent 0.82% of its GDP on R&D, none of the remaining 54 countries, including Ghana, has spent anywhere close to the commitment made.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Ghana, in 2010, spent 0.38% of GDP on research and development. On July 5, 2018, Dr Ibrahim Mohammed Awal, Business Development Minister affirmed that the government was committed to a minimum of one percent of GDP to support R&D on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). Overtime this was to be increased to three percent of GDP. It would be worth for Dr Awal to let Ghanaians know how much of the promised funds were released and for which research and the associated outcome(s).

In 2017 according to the office of the national statistics, UK research and development (R&D) expenditure totalled 34.8 billion GBP or 1.69% of GDP.  Others significant R&D funders as per UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Statistica include: Israel- 4.0% (2018), Sweden 3.1% (2014), Germany 2.9% (2016), USA-2.79% (2016), China-2.19% (2018), Japan-3.18% (2016), and South Korea-4.29% (2014).

Although Africa accounted for 0.9% of global R&D spending in 2019, the majority of this funding was external funding from tied donations. Between 2010 and 2014 the Scientists magazine revealed that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided US$300 million in grants to researchers in 17 of 54 African countries, with around $200 million going to South Africa alone.

While external funding may sometimes be available for research on the continent, the African Centre for Disease Control is currently so underfunded that its respected thought leaders have been reduced to simply commenting on matters of strategic importance as opposed to leading the charge to solve some of the regions pressing disease control issues. The same unfortunately applies to Ghana’s CSIR and other research institutions.

UNSDG’s and Beyond Aid Agenda could be the catalyst for significant R&D funding support

It is an accepted fact that short term thinking is the enemy of long term success. R&D funding is geared towards long term success. President Akufo Addo has recognised current restrictions placed on R&D in the country and has set the scene for potential significant increases in funding via his laudable Beyond Aid Agenda.

This funding will specifically be distributed to help realise his goal of Ghana becoming a major hub for pharmaceutical and vaccine manufacturing on the continent.  Hopefully, he gets widespread government commitment to provide at least 1% of Ghana’s GDP to R&D funding in support of this initiative.

Based on Ghana’s 2019 GDP, this would equate to at least US$660m annually over the next 10 years. Although this may seem like a significant amount, the commercialisation of the outcomes or product/s of the research could easily generate at least 1.5 times that figure over a defined period.

At present, American and European research institutes tend to gain the rights to own the data, patents and products that emerge from research conducted in Africa as well as the rights to commercialise them. The potential for Ghana and selected countries in Africa to access these rights through their own R&D programmes and related commercialisation projects, especially when it comes to cosmeceutical, phytoceuticals, pharmaceuticals, agroceutcals and nutraceuticals, is massive. This potential will however not be possible without dedicated and consistent R&D funding.

COVID-19 has highlighted the urgent need for African governments to reassess their R&D funding strategies and start to pursue Africa-centric science and engineering related research initiatives.

So far, Ghana and the rest of Africa seem to have escaped the cataclysmic consequences of the elusive and cunning Coronavirus. While calculated, bold decisions and quick interventions from the President have certainly helped to minimise the severity of this unprecedented global crisis, certain natural factors, behaviours and products may have also contributed to reducing the impact.

Indeed, the role of the sun, and its natural vitamin D, humidity and natural nutriments including, Ayoyo leaves, Cassava roots, Shea nut leaves, Cocoa seeds, Neem (nim) tree, Cocoa leaves, Cocoa roots, Cassava leaves, Prekese, Shea nuts, Roselle leaf (for sobolo), Tiger nuts(atadwe), Neem leaves etc may also have helped to alleviate the spread and severity of the virus for some local communities.

However, a relative lack of R&D funding in Ghana has meant that no substantive evidence-based direct studies examining their health and risk suppositions have been conducted by our esteemed scientists. Equally, rrecent assertions relating to the potential of the Coronavirus potentially being transmitted through wigs and hair pieces and possibly via facial sweat also remain scientifically uncorroborated due to lack of funding.

With long term thinking, the Chinese has managed to create a tea market which, according to Statisitca, had a market revenue of US$17.9 billion in 2017. Majority of these tea plantations (especially green tea) and processing factories are in China creating millions of jobs for its citizens.  South Africa is also making very good and similar progress with amongst others the Rooibos tea. With sustained funding for R&D, Ghana can also benefit from some of these naturally occurring dietetic products in the country.

Richard Buckminster Fuller rightly stated that things can never be changed by fighting the existing reality. To change something, a new model had to be built to make the existing model obsolete. Let us hope that the Coronavirus pandemic has given the regions’ leaders, decision and policy makers a wakeup call to commit to increase internal spending on R&D and enable a greater focus on African funded, produced and commercialised research that will benefit Africans.

>>> the writer is an international chartered director and Africa’s first ever appointed Professor Extraordinaire for Industrialisation and Supply Chain Governance.   www.panavest.com

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