Pandemic spotlights need greater R&D investment

Victor Hugo, a French poet, novelist and playwright, once noted: “There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” Indeed, there is no denying the fact that the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), despite all its ills, is bringing to the limelight the creativity and innovativeness of institutions of higher learning across the world.

Despite their current shutdowns, universities are dispensing their other core functions of research and community engagement in response to managing and finding a cure for COVID-19.

The Johns Hopkins University in the United States makes daily headlines as, arguably, the frontrunner university in calling accurate and up-to-date statistics on the global infection rate of COVID-19. Africa has not been left out and in the weeks just past, universities in Zimbabwe have responded to their government’s overture of US$1.3 million to provide personal protective equipment for the country. One of them, the Harare Institute of Technology, has already developed a ventilator and indicated its capacity to produce 40 per day.

In Kenya, a group of 16 students from the faculties of biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, pharmacy, medicine and nursing at Kenyatta University under the guidance of two supervisors have invented a prototype ventilator, TZBA-VENT, at the University’s Chandaria Business Innovation and Incubation Centre.

And scientists at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, both at the University of Ghana, have successfully found the sequenced genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease. This discovery will aid the strengthening of surveillance to track mutations of the virus as well as trace the sources of community infections in people with no known contact with confirmed cases.

Relevance of research and development

While commending African universities for shining the light of higher education on the continent, we can do more with more resources. Research is not cheap, and research that does not lead to innovation is a non-starter. In the global economy, when countries are said to be competitive, it is not actually governments that are competitive. Rather, competitiveness is bolstered by a vibrant productive sector which draws from research and development (R&D).

In our universities, R&D follows a certain trajectory: idea generation, actual research, discoveries, actualisation, and the commercialisation of innovations.

Innovation does not happen by chance. It has to be nurtured and funded and it is not surprising that renowned universities steeped in R&D cultures benefit tremendously from research grants. Without funding, innovations remain prototypes and this kills the creativity of researchers in many universities.

Comparing apples and oranges

I stand the risk of being labelled intellectually dishonest as I try to compare African universities with those of the West. However, it is in my intention to draw these parallels to stimulate a discourse to support R&D in Africa.

Universities in the US spend billions of dollars annually on R&D. In fact, annual expenditure by some individual universities is higher than the gross domestic product (GDP) of some small economies in Africa. In the 2017 financial year, for example, the R&D expenditure of Johns Hopkins University (JHU) was US$2.56 billion. It was US$1.53 billion for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and US$1.40 billion for the University of California, San Francisco.

Indeed, the top 10 universities in the US, including Pennsylvania, Stanford and Harvard, all spent over US$1 billion each on R&D in 2017. The relevance of their research, effective utilisation of the grants and their tenacity have continuously aided them to reach out for more research funding from private foundations and for-profit organisations.

The annual expenditures for JHU has been on a year-to-year rise since 2013: from US$2.16 billion in 2013, US$2.24 billion in 2014, US$2.30 billion in 2015, US$2.43 billion in 2016 and US$2.56 billion in 2017. It will not be surprising if COVID-19 will see JHU raising over US$3 billion in 2020 for R&D.

Back in Africa, our countries assembled in Lagos, Nigeria as far back as 1980 to commit to a set of strategies to increase the continent’s self-sufficiency within a 20-year span (1980-2000). In what became known as the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, the countries resolved to commit 1% of their GDPs annually to support R&D. This ended as yet another wish list.

I must re-echo what is widely known: no country can develop without an emphasis on research and development, which provides the stimulus for science and technology growth.

According to the greatest American inventor, Thomas Edison, who incidentally was self-educated, “we don’t know a millionth of 1% about anything.” In essence, he meant that the opportunities in research are a huge area for exploitation. But again, research needs sustainable funding.

Available records of GDP contribution to R&D in selected African countries show 0.54% in Algeria (2017); 0.03% in Angola (2016); 0.30% in Chad (2016); 0.10% in Ivory Coast (2015); 0.72% in Egypt (2018); 0.27% in Ethiopia (2017); 0.01% in Madagascar (2017); 0.34% in Mauritius (2018); 0.58% in Senegal; 0.82% in South Africa (2016) and 0.60% in Tunisia (2018).

If Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, was committing 1% of its GDP to R&D, that would have been US$3.76 billion in 2017. Likewise, if South Africa, the second largest economy, was also contributing 1% of its 2017 GDP to R&D, it would have put about US$3.5 billion into the kitty. However, due to conflicting national priorities, the 1% GDP contributions have generally not been met.

It must be noted that Africa is not a standalone case as many other countries in the world do not commit up to 1% of their GDP to R&D.

Sustainable R&D investment

It is good to reiterate our faith in universities and research institutions as they have shown their resilience over time and will respond to the emerging needs of society and industry. The new coronavirus outbreak which is decimating life and economy with wanton abandon is a test case for researchers. The Ebola virus disease is still a canker Africa wants to wish away. The continent is also home to the highest HIV infection rate in the world. We stand at the crossroads fighting several battles simultaneously.

While African universities will endeavour to raise research grants from various avenues, many such initiatives in Africa are from the effort of individuals and not their institutions as a whole. These efforts need to be documented, synergised, supplemented and scaled up for sustainability by the state and industry.

Short-term responses will generate short-term solutions. We need to value the importance of research for development and any inconsequential investments in this will continue to plague Africa as an impoverished continent. Innovative funding models such as the Ghana Education Trust Fund and the Nigerian Tertiary Education Trust Fund should be thoroughly explored as principal R&D funding sources that can be improved and replicated in other countries.

Ransford Bekoe is a staff member of the Association of African Universities (AAU) and for the past 20 years has served in various capacities. He has been a focal person on the environment, a project officer on university-industry linkages, the facilitator of AAU’s Leadership Development Workshop series, and is currently the programmes manager of AAU TV.

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