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African science academy sheds staff as funders turn away


New Africa-based home sought for programmes to minimise disruption as Gates and others pull support

The African Academy of Sciences is making nearly half its secretariat staff redundant amid the withdrawal of some of its funders.

The AAS has been a major focus for funding on the continent, with several western funders using it to channel funds to researchers across Africa. But it has been rocked by multiple major issues over the past year.

The funders withdrew their support for the AAS, which hosts the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) funding platform, on 31 July due to governance concerns at the academy.

This has had a knock-on effect on staff, who a year ago numbered 67 and managed multi-year grants worth more than US$250 million according to a letter addressed to the AAS governing council in August last year, and signed by dozens of AAS staff.

AESA was launched in 2015 in what its backers, including the Wellcome Trust, likened to shifting the centre of gravity for African research funding decision-making to the continent itself.

AAS acting executive director, Catherine Ngila, confirmed in a 2 September email to Research Professional News that “Staff (less than 50% of current total establishment) have been declared redundant, following funding termination by some of the funders of the AAS.”

Ngila declined to name the funders, or the sums involved, saying some members of the AAS governing council wanted to wait until the conclusion of negotiations with funders. However, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust both confirmed they were redirecting their grants.

“Recent governance challenges at AAS have made it increasingly difficult for the programs run under the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) platform to continue without disruption,” a Gates foundation spokesperson said.

“Accordingly, the foundation is working closely with AUDA-NEPAD [the African Union’s project management arm] and funding partners to find a new, Africa-based home for the programmes AESA currently administers. This will ensure that the work to address Africa’s most pressing health and development challenges can continue,” the spokesperson said.

“Our focus is on minimising the disruption this transition has on the important work of the programs currently administered by AESA,” they added.

The Wellcome Trust said it had appointed PwC Kenya to manage the funding it delivered via the AAS on a temporary basis. It said PwC was taking one some AAS staff to enable it to do this. 

"Wellcome is working with the AAS to minimise any disruption to grant-holders or their research, and to ensure all grant holders affected by the transition are kept up to date with the current situation," a Wellcome spokesperson said. "There should be no need for grant-holders to make any changes to their research plans."

"We are hopeful that this arrangement with PwC Kenya will allow time for an Africa-based organisation to be identified to provide a base to host the programmes," they said. "We are working closely with other AAS/AESA funders and with AUDA-NEPAD to bring long-term certainty for grant-holders as quickly as possible.’

The AAS has been rocked by internal tensions for more than a year. In May this year Research Professional News revealed that tensions had deepened at the top of the AAS

In July 2020 the AAS suspended its executive director, Nelson Torto, claiming it was carrying out a “forensic audit” into allegations that the AAS, under Torto, had inflated staff salaries and benefits without following the right procedures. Torto strongly denied the allegations.

And earlier this year a group of AAS fellows wrote to funders of AESA and other stakeholders in the funding platform, including the African Union’s development body NEPAD, expressing “deep concern” about the governance of the AAS.

Research Professional News understands that the redundancies dismayed many AAS secretariat staff, who have worked under a cloud of uncertainty for months.

In a legal letter to the AAS, dated 29 July, lawyers representing a number of the affected staff claimed that towards the end of April the academy had received notices from key funders saying they would cease funding activities from 31 July. But they claimed that the academy “had not officially communicated” with staff about their employment status beyond 31 August, up to which time the academy had indicated it would retain staff.

The names of the staff being made redundant have not been made public, but they were linked to projects the AAS was managing on behalf of the withdrawing funders, Ngila said. She said staff would be paid redundancy packages in line with Kenyan labour laws, but that details had not yet been agreed.

Some staff serving out their notice periods have been asked to take leave, she confirmed. “With termination of projects, staff who were supporting these projects are now idle. Those who do not have work to do have been requested to take paid leave to reduce their leave balances.”

An AAS fellow who asked to be quoted anonymously claimed AAS staff had suffered as a result of the academy’s leadership not being forthcoming about how the funders’ departure would affect their jobs. “Without shame they have destroyed livelihoods for many colleagues and peers in the AAS,” the fellow said. “This is an indictment on all of us and any scientist who wants in future to work with this financing entity,” they added.

*This story was updated on 9 September at 17.48 South African time to reflect comments from the Wellcome Trust