The African Academy of Scientists (AAS) has outlined its work in developing a critical pool of leaders and innovators in Africa who are pioneering research and helping to tackle the huge burden of disease as well as other challenges on the continent.
In a recent plenary talk at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, director of programmes for the AAS, Dr Thomas Kariuki, said the academy, which has its headquarters in Kenya, has a triple mandate.
“We recognise excellence, have think-tank functions and implement science programmes, which is the biggest chunk of our work.”
Kariuki and a team from the AAS visited UCT primarily to meet with researchers from a project called HI-GENES Africa, which aims to find the genes that cause hearing impairment in people from Africa and to better understand how these genes affect hearing in African populations.
Scientists from UCT are working with their counterparts in Cameroon, Ghana and Mali on the project. The study is part of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) consortium.
“Six out of every 1 000 children in Africa are born deaf. This is six times more than the United States,” said Ambroise Wonkam, professor of medical genetics and deputy dean for research in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
“In half of these children, it is due to a genetic origin and this is a major challenge. We are dealing with truly translational research. UCT is very privileged to have the kind of infrastructure that is able to drive this kind of pan-African research.”
“UCT is very privileged to have the kind of infrastructure that is able to drive this kind of pan-African research.”
He said that the AAS is vitally important.
“Many funders trust the academy to manage their research funds. It is crucial that we have a close relationship with the academy, so that UCT can drive some of the agenda for the good of the continent.”
The AAS wants to increase the number of scientists involved in genomics and population-based research, said Kariuki.
“We are only scratching the surface in understanding the diversity of genes and genetics on our continent. We only contribute five percent of the databases. We have lots to do to understand the huge diversity on our continent.”
Funding and research
In his plenary talk, Kariuki explained that funding and research are vital as Africans are facing an uncertain future. Non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, strokes, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are on the rise in Africa, particularly for people between the ages of 30 and 70. New and efficient ways of dealing with food, energy, climate and water are also needed.
“Africa is a young continent. We have the youngest people globally. We don’t know if the rapid growth across the continent is going to be a dividend or a nightmare,” he told an engaged audience from a cross-section of departments at the university.
He said the AAS needs to convince governments, often weighed down by a long list of priorities, of the importance of investing in science, technology and education.
The academy has focused its interest on several key areas: climate change, health and well-being, water and sanitation, food security and nutritional well-being, and sustainable energy. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is the sixth area of focus.
Kariuki said the AAS has evolved significantly over the past few years, particularly with the 2015 launch of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), an agenda-setting and funding platform created in collaboration with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Agency.
International donor funding is increasingly being channelled through the AAS to support science in Africa. Kariuki said the AAS has mobilised close to $200 million for various grants that it has been able to distribute throughout the continent.
He said the AAS upholds the formula of “supporting the best people in the best places to do the best science”.
“We fund only what is a priority for the country and the continent.”
A key and inspiring part of the AAS is its work in recognising scientists and leaders who have reached the highest level of excellence in their field of expertise and have made contributions to the advancement of their fields on the continent.
The academy has 396 fellows in 39 African countries and 14 on other continents. Nearly 40 fellows are based in South Africa, several of them from UCT, including Professor Nicholas Biepke, who specialises in finance and econometrics, and Professor Val Mizrahi in infectious diseases, said Kariuki.
“When you have a pool of 400 fellows you can use them to shape opinions and policy. We can help governments to support the [United Nations'] Sustainable Development Goals. It’s also an opportunity to explore funding opportunities with appropriate partners.”
The AAS also has an affiliates programme for researchers and scientists under the age of 40.
“We are shifting the centre of gravity for African science to Africa. As a pan-African non-governmental organisation, we can make independent decisions.”
The academy has recently increased the number of programmes it can support on the continent and is working with the Wellcome Trust, the UK government’s Department for International Development and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among other donors.
“Through AESA we are shifting the centre of gravity for African science to Africa. As a pan-African non-governmental organisation, we can make independent decisions. We work closely with governments, but not close enough for them to influence us.”
The AAS is the only continental academy in Africa to have the support and recognition of NEPAD and the African Union as well as several governments and major international partners.
Kariuki is also pleased about the Academy’s Grand Challenges in Africa (GC Africa) scheme, implemented through the AAS and AESA. Recently, the AAS worked with UCT’s Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to commit funding for the discovery of new drugs for diseases endemic to Africa.
H3D, which has been recognised globally for its pivotal research in the fields of malaria and tuberculosis, will offer successful grantees from various African universities experience in conducting drug discovery projects on the African continent.
“We need to move innovations faster to the market place. A lot of the universities we work with struggle with the ‘valley of death’ – that valley between having something really, really brilliant and moving it to the market.
“Through funding, we hope to spur African innovation and focus on ideas that we can move quickly to scale.”
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