By Francis S. Collins and Jeremy Farrar
We are writing to comment on your November 12 article entitled “Funding Research in Africa” by Paula Park. The article appropriately identified a very real problem—the dearth of basic research funding for scientists in many African countries. While the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Wellcome Trust, and others fund a considerable amount of research in Africa, many of those awards are made to non-African institutions and scientists, who in turn sub-contract for collaborations with their African colleagues. However, Park apparently did not appreciate that the proportion of awards made directly to African scientists and institutions is steadily increasing, and now accounts for about 40 percent of Wellcome Trust and 63 percent of NIH funding for research in Africa.
As a prominent example of this increasing focus on direct funding to African investigators, the NIH and the Wellcome Trust recently established a collaborative program, called Human Health and Heredity in Africa (H3Africa). H3Africa directly funds African scientists at African institutions to conduct research on the genomic and environmental bases of health problems of importance in Africa. Support is being provided for basic research, improved infrastructure, and training. One of the long-term goals of H3Africa is to increase the ability of African scientists to compete for international research funding.
NIH and the Wellcome Trust have, together, committed the equivalent of at least $76 million to H3Africa for the period 2012–2016, and both agencies will consider extending the program for an additional five years pending the outcome of rigorous peer review processes at each agency. The current H3Africa awards were made after an open competition, and each agency reviewed the applications according to its normal peer review process.
As the research areas of the grant applications were determined entirely by the applicants, it is interesting to note that, while some H3Africa grants address infectious diseases (e.g., trypanosomaisis, tuberculosis, pediatric HIV/AIDS, and fevers of unknown origin), the majority are actually directed at non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs are, as Park noted, of increasing importance in Africa. Among the NCDs currently under study in H3Africa projects are type 2 diabetes, rheumatic heart disease, cardiometabolic disease, stroke, schizophrenia, and kidney disease. Infrastructure components of H3Africa include a continental bioinformatics network, called H3ABioNet, and biorepositories, which are also located on the continent. All projects within H3Africa are organized as a research consortium to promote intra-African collaboration and the sharing of experience among investigators and trainees.
The Wellcome Trust is also investing significantly in programs that will develop a cohort of outstanding researchers in sub-Saharan Africa. One example is the £30 million ($47 million) African Institutions Initiative established in 2008, in which all the funds for more than 50 African institutions are going directly to Africa. More recently, the Wellcome Trust has supported with an initial commitment of £40 million ($62.6 million) over five years, the Developing Excellence in Leadership Training and Science (DELTAS) Africa initiative, which aims to facilitate collaboration with other funders of African research.
In addition, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department of International Development have co-funded two programs, at £10 million ($15.6 million) each, to support national health research funding organizations in Kenya and Malawi. These programs are free to set and manage their own research funding priorities.
Another NIH-funded, African-led global health program—the Medical Education Partnership Initiative (MEPI)—works in partnership with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to provide $130 million in direct support over a five-year period to 34 African medical schools in 12 countries. Strengthening and expanding the clinical research workforce in Africa are among the aims of MEPI.
The NIH and Wellcome Trust are very encouraged by the early results of these direct funding programs, and urge other funding agencies to consider joining us in our efforts to increase the capacity of African scientists performing world-class research in their own countries. Of course, in the long-term, the success of scientific research in Africa will depend on the willingness and ability of African governments to invest in research. Such investments will lead to a sustainable African workforce and infrastructure that can address the health concerns of all Africans.
Francis S. Collins is the director of the US National Institutes of Health. Jeremy Farrar is the director of the Wellcome Trust.
This article was published on The Scientist.