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Advancing Science for Global Health
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Home > Global Health Matters Sep/Oct 2021 > NIH awards $75M to boost data science in Africa Print

NIH awards $75M to boost data science in Africa

September/October 2021 Volume 20 Number 5

Family views flooding outside their homePhoto courtesy of UCT
The University of Cape Town (UCT) will develop and manage the open data science platform and coordinating center of the NIH’s new Data Science in Africa program.

The NIH is investing about $74.5 million over five years to advance data science, catalyze innovation and spur health discoveries across Africa. Under its new Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) program, the NIH is issuing 19 awards to support research and training activities. DS-I Africa is an NIH Common Fund program that is supported by the Office of the Director and 11 NIH Institutes, Centers and Offices. Awards will establish a consortium consisting of a data science platform and coordinating center, seven research hubs, seven data science research training programs and four projects focused on studying the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of data science research. Awardees have a robust network of partnerships across the African continent and in the U.S., including numerous national health ministries, nongovernmental organizations, corporations and other academic institutions. 

“This initiative has generated tremendous enthusiasm in all sectors of Africa’s biomedical research community,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis S. Collins. “Big data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have the potential to transform the conduct of research across the continent, while investing in research training will help to support Africa’s future data science leaders and ensure sustainable progress in this promising field.”

The University of Cape Town (UCT) will develop and manage the initiative’s open data science platform and coordinating center, building on previous NIH investments in UCT’s data and informatics capabilities made through the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program. UCT will provide a flexible, scalable platform for the DS-I Africa researchers, so they can find and access data, select tools and workflows, and run analyses through collaborative workspaces. UCT will also administer and support core resources, as well as coordinate consortium activities.

The research hubs, all of which are led by African institutions, will apply novel approaches to data analysis and AI to address critical health issues. Scientists in Kenya will leverage large, existing data sets to develop and validate AI models to identify women at risk for poor pregnancy outcomes; and to identify adolescents and young healthcare workers at risk of depression and suicide ideation. A hub in Nigeria will study SARS-CoV-2 and HIV with the goal of using data to improve pandemic preparedness. In Uganda, researchers will advance data science for medical imaging with efforts to improve diagnoses of eye disease and cervical cancer. Scientists in Nigeria will also study anti-microbial resistance and the dynamics of disease transmission, develop a portable screening tool for bacterial infections and test a potential anti-microbial compound. A project based in Cameroon will investigate ways to decrease the burden of injuries and surgical diseases, as well as improve access to quality surgical care across the continent. From a hub in South Africa, researchers will study multi-disease morbidity by analyzing clinical and genomic data with the goal of providing actionable insights to reduce disease burden and improve overall health. Finally, another project in South Africa will develop innovative solutions to mitigate the health impacts of climate change throughout the region, with initial studies of clinical outcomes of heat exposure.

The research training programs, which leverage partnerships with U.S. institutions, will create multi-tiered curricula to build skills in foundational health data science, with options ranging from master’s and doctoral degree tracks, to postdoctoral training and faculty development. A mix of in-person and remote training will be offered to build skills in topics such as applied mathematics, biostatistics, epidemiology, clinical informatics, analytics, computational omics, biomedical imaging, machine intelligence, computer science and engineering. Trainees will receive intensive mentoring and participate in internships to learn how to apply data science concepts to medical and public health areas including the social determinants of health, climate change, infectious diseases, noncommunicable diseases and health surveillance.

Recognizing that data science research may uncover potential ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI), the consortium will include dedicated ELSI research teams that will be embedded in the research hubs to address these topics. This will include efforts to develop evidence-based, context specific guidance for the conduct and governance of data science initiatives. Researchers will evaluate current legal instruments and guidelines to develop new and innovative governance frameworks for data science health research in Africa. They will explore legal differences across regions of the continent, as well as investigate public attitudes regarding data science approaches for healthcare.

A second phase of the program is being planned to encourage more researchers to join the consortium, foster the formation of new partnerships and address additional capacity building needs. A concept under development would support discrete research projects led by African investigators who propose innovative health data science research and solutions with a new non-academic partner. To enhance the career pipeline and retention of health data scientists in Africa, at least half of the awards would go to new and early-stage investigators. A second concept would enhance the existing research training programs.

In addition to the Common Fund, the DS-I Africa awards are being supported by Fogarty, the National Cancer Institute, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Library of Medicine and the NIH Office of Data Science Strategy. 

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