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EU-Africa research partnership is in everyone’s interest


Pioneering agreement contrasts with wavering national commitments, say Ole Petter Ottersen and Jan Palmowski

In July, the AU-EU Innovation Agenda was finalised. It is an extraordinary document. Agreed across two cross-continental political unions, it marks a recognition that research collaboration is critical to achieve the strategic priorities of each, notably the African Union’s desire for a knowledge society, expressed in its Agenda 2063,  and the EU’s aim to tackle challenges such as climate change through its Global Gateway.  

Implementing this pioneering agreement will require close collaboration between the Commission’s directorate for research and innovation and its directorate for global partnerships. It will also involve dialogue between the Commission and member states to align national and European policies.  

But just as attention shifts to the national level, some countries’ commitment to development research is wavering. In Sweden, pressure from the populist Sweden Democrats, on whose votes the coalition government depends, has led to the abolition of all Swedish Research Council grants for development research. This follows the halving of research funding through the Swedish Development Agency.  

And in July, Norway’s Ministry of Education and Research suspended the 2023 calls for applications for the Norwegian Partnership Programme for Global Academic Cooperation. Norway is not an EU member but associates with Horizon Europe.  

Even with tight public finances and foreign policy focused on Ukraine, there is simply no alternative to developing partnerships with African researchers. Africa’s population is predicted to grow from over 1.4 billion today to 2.5bn by 2050, and 4.2bn in 2100. It is no accident that the EU’s international research strategy, the global approach to R&I, prioritises Africa: the continent’s ambitions to become a knowledge society are in Europe’s interest. 

Taking notice 

Russia and China have noted Africa’s importance, not just for energy and raw materials but also for its human potential. At the recent Brics Summit in Johannesburg, China announced three priorities for investment in Africa. All have links to science: industrialisation, agricultural transformation and talent development, the last of which includes the China-Africa Universities 100 Cooperation Plan. If Europe dithers, China won’t.  

But the most important reason for investing in international research collaboration for sustainable development is our scientific interdependence. Bolstering collaboration between European and African universities will give all parties the richness of perspectives needed for fostering high-quality education and science, and grappling with global challenges.  

For instance, while the greatest human genetic diversity is in Africa, only 2 per cent of human genomes recorded are from there. Genomic research led by African scientists is set to make a huge impact on treating disease globally. And exploring how Europe and Africa can complement each other in developing technologies for clean energy is a must if we want to address climate change. 

The question for Europe is not whether to invest in scientific collaboration with Africa but how to make it equitable, given the economic and power imbalance in science between the global north and global south. For this, we need a new approach based on equity and capacity-building.  

African researchers must be equal partners in bringing questions and perspectives to the table. Europe must invest in research infrastructure on the African continent, enabling more top research to be done in African facilities and supporting global talent circulation. Global and national funders must support excellence-based research and the systems to enable it.  

This is a crucial moment. European science can either retreat into nationalism, investing only at home and oblivious to the fact that excellent science requires global collaboration. Or Europe can pioneer an approach that sees knowledge as a global public good.  

The more the global science system can bring in those it has hitherto excluded, the greater the benefits, not only to science but also to wider society. This requires a commitment that everybody can benefit from the fruits of science.

To achieve this, the EU now has an opportunity to begin implementing the AU-EU Innovation Agenda through a new kind of integrated funding instrument that invests in excellence, collaboration and capacity building in the long term. And it requires a commitment to ensure that curiosity-driven science, whether basic or applied, can achieve maximum societal and economic impact, ensuring a new alignment between researchers, training programmes, national agencies and economic actors. 

Ole Petter Ottersen is acting secretary-general of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities. Jan Palmowski is currently the guild’s lead on Africa-Europe Research Partnerships.

This article also appeared in Research Europe