Science in the Tropics Series – Part 3 – Limited research funding in developing countries: a problem requiring change

Publicação: 9 de December de 2019

Can the capacity for scientific research developed in a social context of extreme inequality raise inequality in scientific research?

The directions of scientific development and the need for reflection on ethics in science bring the theme of research participants’ vulnerability to the center of ethical discussions

It is undeniable that the advances achieved by scientific development have provided unsurpassed contributions to the progress of humanity. But if, on the one hand, these achievements bring hope for improvement, on the other, they create a number of contradictions that need to be analyzed responsibly. Nowadays, scientific research has ceased to be the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge and has been thought, above all, of its practical and instrumental application. Science must produce universally useful knowledge that promotes social inclusion in its various strands and sustainable development. An important aspect to consider when conducting research is the impact its results can have. Due to the repercussions that certain researches can generate, it is essential to establish forms of ethical control, either from a new stance towards science itself and/or the society’s values.

Modern science has required major investments to produce innovative results, and every researcher must exercise his profession appropriately to make adequate contributions to the advancement of science. In the last decades, the debate about ethics in research funded by developed countries and implemented in partnership with institutions from resource-limited countries has gained prominence. In Africa, for example, there has been a significant increase in research in response to the continent’s serious health challenges.

In this third article in the series of stories produced by the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (BSTM) on “Science in the Tropics,” we spoke with representatives of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), which provides evidence-based advice to governments and decision makers as a way to contribute to the socioeconomic development of the continent in a rational and efficient manner.

Regarding the differences between science made in rich countries and science produced in less developed countries, the president of the African Academy of Sciences, Dr. Felix Dapare Dakora argues that, in principle, there should be no difference between science in rich countries and science in less developed countries if adequate funding is present. “However, funding in developing countries generally tends to be weak or non-existent. As a result, scientists in developing countries often lack access to sophisticated equipment and adequate infrastructure for experimental sample analysis. Here I refer to research in areas such as engineering, natural sciences, health etc.

Today, a large number of researchers from less developed countries are trained as PhD and/or Postdoctoral students in advanced laboratories in developed countries, so they acquire skills and techniques that can conduct cutting-edge research if they have the necessary funding to obtain the research reagents or other expensive inputs needed to drive large equipment”, he explains. Still according to Dr. Dakra, science in less developed countries can be constrained by lack of resources, lack of equipment, low level of collaboration and low culture/ethics. So, he concludes, by contrast, that research in social and human sciences that do not require such expensive equipment must be similar in rich and less developed countries.

For the vice president of the African Academy of Sciences for the Central African Region, Professor Dr. Vincent PK Titanji, in fragile democracies, the importance of science is often underestimated. “Too often decision makers believe that politics can solve most problems. Of course, many fake science-supportive speeches exist, but funding science is not seen as a priority. Even when governments in developing countries decide to fund research, they tend to focus on so-called applied research rather than fundamental research, leaving aside that the two are inextricably linked, leading to each other”, he points out. Still according to him, good science practices derive from the application of the Scientific Method and the Principle of the Universality of Science and by fixing this concept in the culture of people.

Vice President of the African Academy of Sciences for the South Africa Region, Professor Dr. Boitumelo V. Kgarebe acknowledges that research in developing countries is largely financially neglected by governments. “By the very nature of the research, its results are slow to reach, while governments need to reap easy, short-term rewards, such as building roads, bridges, schools, etc., to ensure reelection. Thus, the priorities for politicians are those projects that make them ‘look good’, he highlights.

According to him, changing this reality depends on convincing these politicians, and this demands long dialogues with them. Reporting on the research process and potential return on investment requires researchers to explain research elements in understandable language, with achievable goals throughout the research. Often, it is this communication (or lack thereof) that lowers research projects and any costs or funding to a low priority status.

“This fact may in future be addressed by African institutions such as the African Development Bank Initiative or the African Union, which are continental bodies on the African scene that have direct access to politicians. Leveraged research through these institutions would make great progress in prioritizing research and making funding readily available”, he concludes.

Regarding the credibility of research originating from countries such as the African nations, the vice president of the African Academy of Sciences for the East Africa Region, Professor Dr. Elly N. Sabiiti admits that researchers in Africa are highly trained and carry out good to excellent research that are published in both national and international journals or forming book chapters or leading to the publication of books. Once published in these reference journals they are equivalent to or even superior when they are published in Nature. “In Africa there are countries with cutting-edge laboratories where researchers generate quality knowledge equal to developed countries”, he emphasizes.

The vice president of the African Academy of Sciences for the North Africa Region, Professor Dr. Mahmoud Abdel-Aty explains that in order to bring research into ethical procedures and the pursuit of knowledge in less developed countries, they propose specific and practical comparisons to assist in the pursuit of knowledge and to guide committees in analyzing how well the listed ethical principles have been met in specific cases. “To bring research closer to ethical procedures, we support collaborative partnerships between researchers, sponsors, politicians and communities”, he adds.

For at least three million years, Africa has been contributing with cultures, knowledge, techniques and technologies to the world. But Africa also moves in science. Most African countries have some system in place for ethical review in clinical research. In some of them, such as Mozambique, systems are supported by legislation, while it is still informal in many African countries. Field workers involved in research often face a difficult paradigm: how to interpret the communities’ own priorities and translate them into concrete proposals, while meeting the expectations of funders.

The development of bioethics and ethics in scientific research in Africa is relatively incipient but has aroused public interest in the subject. In sub-Saharan countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania as well as Angola – specifically at the Agostinho Neto University School of Medicine (Fmuan) – several training programs in research ethics have been set up with funding from Fogarty International. The institution belongs to the National Institute of Public Health (NIH) of the United States.