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How will Covid-19 affect research for development?

The pandemic has revealed Africa’s enhanced research capacity but may threaten international funding

“The crisis has revealed quite a lot. There was a lot of pessimism on how Africa was going to manage: ‘When this hits the poor communities on the continent, everybody’s going to be dying in droves.’ But we’ve not seen that. [Africans are] able to launch a response, we’re able to mobilise governments, we’re able to mobilise ministries of health and we’re able to mobilise researchers.”

The coronavirus pandemic is far from over and there may be setbacks still to come. But even so, the words of Judy Omumbo, programme manager at the African Academy of Sciences, are well supported by the successful public health response so far of African nations from Senegal to South Africa.

Omumbo was speaking at an online webinar on research for development in the era of Covid-19 on 30 April, organised by SOAS, University of London. While the webinar’s remit was global, the predominance of speakers from or with experience of working in Africa meant that the focus inevitably fell there.

As Omumbo pointed out, African scientists have been crucial to the global scientific response to the crisis. She related how African researchers and innovators had been quick to develop affordable ventilators and test kits and that African genomics labs had also been quick off the mark. The first two coronavirus sequences from the African continent were published by labs in Ede, Nigeria, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in early March.

“The days when there was no research capacity in Africa are over,” Omumbo surmised. “The capacity is there now.”

Ready to lead

The growth of African research capacity has also been revealed by the response of African researchers in other fields. Alex Lewis, director of research at SOAS, spoke of how African partners on UK-led research projects quickly stepped into lead roles when UK-based principal investigators were no longer able to fly out for work due to travel restrictions.

Similarly, Kevin Marsh, a professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford who has spent much of his career working with African research institutes, spoke of the crisis revealing dramatic changes in African research capacity. “I’m not just talking about technical capacity but also capacity in terms of strategic thinking and research governance,” he said.

For both Omumbo and Marsh, the African research response to the pandemic has been a wake-up call: a signal that African researchers should not only be leading on ambitious projects but also be setting their agenda and defining what research is undertaken in the first place. “African researchers would like to lead their own research,” Omumbo said.

External funding

Unfortunately, whether or not this happens is not in the hands of African researchers. The continent’s dependence on external research funding continues to be a sticking point. Following the coronavirus pandemic, will international funders overhaul how their calls are structured to take Africa’s enhanced research prowess into account?

Maybe not immediately, if the response of Robert Felstead, head of Global Challenges Research Fund challenges at UK Research and Innovation, is anything to go by. Felstead was keen to point out that the “direction of travel” for GCRF-supported calls was that they could be led by researchers in partner countries, even if such calls were in the minority at present.

But Felstead’s concerns were more immediate. He said the GCRF had prioritised an “agile response to emergencies” but the nature of this particular emergency was making that difficult to fulfil.

GCRF representatives are in talks with UK government departments as well as partner country organisations. Thanks to this, Felstead said, “we’re not short of ideas” on how the fund might respond with targeted calls. However, the practical question of how to proceed is a tricky one, he added.

Any research sponsored by the GCRF “needs to be safe” for all those participating, Felstead stressed. “The fact is that a lot of our research projects at the moment are struggling to get off the ground” due to the crisis, he said. “If we’re going to fund anything in response we need to actually be able to do it.”

Pandemic impacts

Earlier, Marsh had talked about how “the rest of the development research agenda does not go away” as coronavirus raises its head. “Malaria or HIV won’t become less important; adolescent health, sexual and reproductive health, maternal mortality…none of these things will be less important. But there is a real danger that we’ll direct funding away from them in the long term.”

Felstead picked up on those comments and reassured researchers that the GCRF would not make that mistake: “You do not want to throw the whole development agenda out of the window because of one crisis, no matter how bad one crisis is.”

Accordingly, a priority for those working with the GCRF is to ensure that projects meet their objectives as well as possible given the circumstances, he said. Felstead’s advice to all those working on GCRF-sponsored projects was to do their utmost to complete them. The funder will consider extending projects when the scheduled end date nears.

He added that GCRF staff were particularly concerned about projects coming to their end, as typically the conclusion of a project coincided with its period of maximum impact. The question of how best to support such projects was high on the GCRF’s agenda, he stressed.

While his words may offer some reassurance to researchers in international development, he concluded with a worrying reminder that the funding allocated to the GCRF was “part of the international development budget, which is tied to the economic performance of the UK”.

The implication is clear: if the UK and other countries in the global north are heading towards deep recessions, funding of research in the global south will soon be affected. The impact this will have on the burgeoning research capacity in Africa, of which Omumbo and Marsh spoke so encouragingly, remains to be seen.