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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. 

Headshot of Fogarty Director Dr Roger I Glass.Read recent 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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