African scientists need more funding to boost health care

Wednesday July 19 2017

Simon Kay, Wellcome Trust head of operations

Simon Kay, Wellcome Trust head of operations and partnerships. PHOTO COURTESY 

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Dr Simon Kay is the head of international operations and partnerships at the Wellcome Trust. He is a zoologist with a doctorate in tumour immunology from the University of Nottingham.

Dr Kay is responsible for the rollout of the Deltas programme in sub-Saharan Africa and the establishment of the Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa platform in partnership with the African Academy of Sciences, Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development.

He has worked in Singapore, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan and Israel to build relations between the UK and these countries through education, science and the arts. He joined the Wellcome Trust in 2012.

What is the state of funding for research in Africa?

It is not where it should be, but I am optimistic.

At the recent Developing Excellence in Leadership, Training and Science (Deltas) Africa Annual Grantees Meeting in Accra, you called on African governments to match the donor funds they receive. Haven’t they been supporting their researchers?
If you were a health minister in an African country, faced with building infrastructure and tackling infectious diseases as they occur, there is only so much you can do about allocating money for research and development.

The Wellcome Trust has invested billions of dollars in East Africa; are you seeing good results?

Research in health and science takes a while to register notable results. We have been with the Kenya Medical Research Institute for over 25 years, and now it has more than 800 staff and is carrying out world-class research in the East African region.

Like other funders, Wellcome Trust’s ambition is to see better health and address global health challenges. There are several unmet health needs on the continent — problems and epidemics that require preparedness and investment.

In Kenya alone, we have supported Kemri Kilifi since 1989. It is now the largest research hub in the country, with four scientific departments: Bioscience, Epidemiology and Demography, Clinical Research and Health Systems.

Its staff can generate relevant solutions for the health and development issues that the East African region is grappling with.

Deltas will support 11 world-class research consortia across the continent, one of which is Kenya’s Develop African Research Leaders headed by Dr Sam Kinyanjui.

The other is Training Health Researchers in Vocational Excellence in East Africa-2 headed by Prof Nelson Sewankambo at Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Uganda.  

By 2020, Deltas will have granted 80 graduate internships, and 22 master’s and 175 PhD fellowships. We expect to have 98 post-doctoral fellows, 23 senior researchers and 122 social scientists.

We are in partnership with more than 54 institutions in Africa, but other funding partners such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have also injected money into similar projects on the continent.

However, the money is not enough to produce what could be considered a critical mass of biomedical research for the continent. Deltas expects to produce 500 scientists and researchers in five years.

If we had, say $200 million, there would be 1,000 researchers in that time. That is why it is important that African governments and partners fund research. This will also help the continent control its own science and research agenda.

East Africa has attracted a lot of funding. Is it being favoured over the other regions?
Far from it. If scientists receive money for their work, it means they meet the stringent requirements.