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Investing in Africa will improve economy and health
September/October 2021 Volume 20 Number 5
Opinion by Fogarty Director Dr Roger I. Glass
The 20th century has demonstrated
that innovations in technology and
investments in research have been
among the most powerful and cost-effective ways to advance economic
development and improve health
and prosperity. I was delighted to
participate in a recent event hosted
by the African Business Coalition and
the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), where
we explored the tremendous opportunities for progress
across their continent. COVID-19 has clearly shown us the
need to strengthen African research capacity to respond to
health issues with African solutions.
Sustainable advances usually require a well-developed
research agenda and a solid workforce trained in science,
technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) capable
of carrying it out. We must think about things differently.
First, we need to refocus our training in STEM from rote
memory learning to problem solving. We need to think
about how to foster creativity, innovation and leadership.
opinion pieces from Fogarty Director Dr. Roger I. Glass.
Second, we must recognize that team science is critical.
It’s not just the health scientists who are important but it’s
the engineers, the data scientists, the businesspeople and
the marketers. It’s understanding where we can identify
local priorities for health research and find solutions that
will make a difference. We’re now investing in teams to do
this kind of research, where each member brings different
perspectives to the table not just to conduct research,
publish papers and push out academic promotions but to
develop products, find solutions and bring these solutions
and products to market.
Third, governments and industry have to come together
to develop activities like biotech parks, filled with spaces
where new ideas from academia can be incubated and
accelerated into products that improve health and can be
brought to scale.
Partnerships are absolutely critical to all these endeavors.
South-South partnerships should be encouraged, so that
new skills acquired are shared regionally and across the
continent. North-South partnerships remain important
to bring new technologies and help discover how they
could be adapted for local use. NIH has contributed
by establishing African networks for research training through the Medical Education Partnership Initiative and
for genomics research through the Human Health and
Heredity in Africa program.
Finally, we should consider ways to engage diaspora
scientists with Africa, so their knowledge, perspectives and
networks can be leveraged for progress. We are encouraged
by the example of Dr. John Nkengasong. Early in his
career, he received Fogarty training in the U.S., spent time
at the American CDC, and now has gone on to be a truly
outstanding leader of the Africa CDC. We need to train
more people for leadership positions who understand
research, who can make policies that respond to the
science and can move this agenda forward.
In addition to strengthening its pandemic preparedness,
Africa must also prepare to address the rising tide of
noncommunicable diseases such as mental illness,
diabetes, stroke and lung cancer. These illnesses have
overlapping risk factors—hypertension, high fasting plasma
glucose, high body mass index, tobacco use, and ambient
air pollution. Some of these diseases and risk factors are
also predisposing factors for more severe and prolonged
cases of COVID-19. Through our implementation science
efforts, we are trying to leverage the HIV research and care
platforms for NCDs, but much more is needed.
We see huge opportunities with Africa’s rapidly expanding
population of young people who will be the stimulus for
these activities in the future. We need to encourage them
as they progress in scientific careers, find ways to keep
them on the continent, and make them part of the solution.
We believe that in the next few decades economic advances
in Africa will be driven by innovations in science, and
technology, leading to improvements in health. Much of
that will come from local solutions to local problems aided
by global collaborations and partnerships.
NIH plans to remain an active participant. This month
we are launching a $75 million data science in Africa
initiative. Through this investment, we will be creating a
network of research and training hubs in data science and
innovation across Africa to stimulate innovation, advance
data science and spur health discoveries.
We realize progress is measured over decades and we are
committed for the long haul.
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