New UK-Africa partnerships confront science’s ‘colonial legacy’

New wave of funding schemes aims to counter ‘parachute research’ and brain drain

September 28, 2022
African medical students
Source: iStock

New funding schemes to support African researchers on home soil will help to create more equitable scientific partnerships between British and African universities, the head of a new training initiative said.

This month the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) announced that it will fund 25 new PhD scholars based in Gambia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe to study infectious diseases, maternal and child health, tropical diseases and other related topics, thanks to a £1.5 million donation from the Hamish Ogston Foundation, a charity dedicated to eliminating global health inequalities.

Another major UK player in global health, Imperial College London, has also unveiled new funding for research and education projects in 10 African countries that will see UK and African academics work together on projects and visit each other at partner institutions for up to two months. Projects will require academics from Imperial and African countries to submit jointly developed proposals, with Imperial contributing up to £10,000 to successful bids.

Both programmes seek to prevent a brain drain of African academics to Global North countries by building research capacity in African institutions via exchanges and partnerships rather than simply bringing African PhD students or researchers to British universities.

Rashida Ferrand, director of the Platinum Jubilee Health Training Programme and an epidemiologist at LSHTM, said the new scheme addressed a consistent failure with global health research, which has often been criticised for “parachute research” in which Western researchers have relatively weak links to African-based scholars. “Seeing UK global health professionals go to Africa and accrue all the research benefits – publications, funding, promotions – has always sat very uncomfortably with me,” said Professor Ferrand. “There is definitely an equity issue we need to confront here.”

Under the new scheme, LSHTM will waive its annual fees for selected African PhD students – which can be as much as £25,000 a year – but also allow them to register as doctoral candidates in their home countries.

Professor Ferrand said the scheme aligned with LSHTM’s commitment to examine its colonial legacy, having been created in the 1890s to train doctors to serve across the British empire.

“When global health [medicine] began, it was about serving the colonial machinery, and sadly the way global health institutions produce their programmes is often a legacy of that colonial mindset,” said Professor Ferrand. “We can say all the right things about changing this, but we also need to engage in work to build research capacity [in Africa].

“Having highly trained scientists come to Africa to do research brings lots of benefits, but we also need to recognise the benefits also flow to these individuals or their institution.”

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