The world is transitioning rapidly to the knowledge economy, but Africa is once more lagging behind. Research is by far the most important driver of new knowledge and innovation. But do we research and if we do, how much do we and how much do we translate into implementable policies and commercial products?
I took interest in Uganda’s 2017/18 national Budget and found out that the word research was mentioned only few times and there was no clear amount allocated to research. This is strange given the fact that the Budget theme was: ‘Industrialisation for job-creation and shared prosperity’.
There is no way you can industrialise without strategic investment in research and translation of research into products and implementable policies. Even when you buy technology from outside, it needs to be validated and customised to make it work for the country. All this takes research and innovation.
Without a strong research base, industrialisation is like living on artificial oxygen and how long can someone survive on this form of oxygen?
Governments and people seem to be comfortable being consumers of knowledge and technology from elsewhere rather than generating their own. What I see in national budgets is huge sums of money allocated to programmes that consume technology from overseas and little or none to research. Where money is spent says a lot about what the nation values.
There is always an argument that money cannot be spent on research when the basics of life are still unmet. On the contrary, it is in such times of hardship that research and innovation should be at the peak to solve the problems at hand.
This is the time when people should think innovatively and governments strategically invest in research to find answers to the nation’s challenges. No one knows Africa better than Africans and Africa’s breakthrough will come from African solutions.
More than 10 years ago, the Uganda government made it a policy to promote science education at secondary and university levels, but never made a matching investment into research. What is science education without research?
The 2017/18 Budget allocated about Shs14 billion to operationalise three new public universities, bringing the number of public universities to 11 in addition to 33 private universities. The question is, has research budget been set aside to make these universities research active rather than just teaching institutions?
And for those who strive to compete for international research funding, what channels are in place to translate their findings into policy and practice, and products accessible by the wider society?
Innovation is not complete until it is translated into products usable by society.
Working with Makerere University and partners from Kenya, Tanzania and the United Kingdom, TWENDE consortium is learning from the implementation of tuberculosis diagnostics to develop effective model for accelerating translation of health research innovations into policy and practice in East Africa. Our sense of the situation so far is that most innovations and policies die at the implementation (practice) phase.
Most policies remain shelved while those implemented are severely under financed and may not see the next light of day without external donor funds. Domestic funding is critical for Africa to generate African solutions.
Our national budgets should demonstrate that we are able to boldly face our challenges by finding and implementing solutions with or without the hand of external donors.
Dr Sabiiti is a senior research fellow in Medicine & Char TWENDE consortium
University of St Andrews, UK