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Africa’s Fight for Equality in Scientific Research

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Response to Article: Research: Africa’s fight for equality

Author: Linda Nordling

Date: 05 May 2015

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Author: Janny Chang

The May 5th Nature article written by Linda Nordling brought the world’s attention to the landmark Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust Research Programme case and raised a number of serious concerns.

First, it illuminated the impact of colonial legacy, still very much alive on the continent of Africa. This unequal legacy is deeply embedded in collaborations between international agencies and African scientists, who are often relegated to less visible positions. In Academic Cooperation with Africa: Lessons for Partnership in Higher Education, author Dieten Neubert alludes to the unequal power dynamic in North-South relationships. Neubert argues,

“The North tends to dominate the relationship, at least indirectly. Nearly all the funds either for teaching, research or for the support of African universities come form the North, in our case from Germany…In this constellation the African University often ends up in the role of a junior partner. Another inequality may put stress on a partnership. The salaries in Germany and Africa are obviously extremely uneven….The unequal payment is at least a potential threat for trustful cooperation (Neubert, 2008, p. 100).” [1]

Even in areas touting “international collaboration” such as global health science, this colonial legacy reared its ugly head.


In a recent article, medical doctor Tamer M. Fouad reminds us of the startling facts. Africans account for 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and there are fewer than 5 million students of higher education in sub-Saharan African, a region with more than 1 billion people. Fouad reveals that for many international researchers, “collaboration” has become synonymous with publishing in well-known journals, which are almost exclusively found in Europe and the United States. This opportunistic behavior is often done at the expense of their African counterparts, whose data and samples they use, but fail to give proper credit. [2]

A consistent narrative of inequality between Western and African researchers also emerges in research on science in Africa. For example, a seminal book by anthropologist Johanna Taylor Crane titled Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise and the Rise of American Global Health Science corroborates this claim. Crane’s ethnography showed that American researchers had dual motivations in doing HIV research in Africa. Their humanitarian motivations were coupled with career opportunism to use African research to advance their own interests. Crane’s conclusion was that the years of burgeoning HIV/AIDS research was not only a time of hope for Africans, with the introduction of ARVs, but also the expansion for opportunities for some companies, doctors and scientific researchers from the West.

Crane’s close study of researchers at a rural clinic in Uganda also yielded some disturbing insights. She noted that many Uganda physicians involved in the research were not included as authors in publications and were often relegated to subordinate position of blood and other sample collectors. Africans in general were disproportionately asked to be test subjects. This is akin to the United States’ reprehensible history of using African Americans as disposable subjects in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the 1930s, lasting for 40 years, and other patterns of experimental abuse of Blacks – all in the name of science. [3]

Politics of Citation

A second issue Nordling raised is the culture of “publish and perish” dominating science circles around the world. While sensitizing scientists in the West to collaborate on equal levels with their African counterparts may prevent inequalities, a larger systemic issue of a changing academia must be addressed. This involves the pressure to publish and only in a handful of prestigious journals.

The problems of citation practices and publication exclusivity have significant implications for African researchers. In fact, it has implications for all researchers at the periphery – women, minorities, and immigrants. The implication is that African researchers and those at the periphery are not given a fair chance to be published and recognized for their research. Because scientists are hired and awarded grants and fellowships based on publications in the top journals, African scientists and those at the periphery, with the exception of a super-star few, are less likely to be given a fair shot at establishing an international scientific career. What’s at stake is a true meritocratic system that awards scientists based on the quality and relevance of their research. What’s at stake is potentially life-changing knowledge that gets cast aside and ignored due to structural inequalities of the academic system.

Economic Barriers

This issue also prevents open access journals or African-based mega journals from leveling the playing field. As long as there are only a handful of top “luxury” journals that control access and direct resources to a  small percentage of research, mostly hailing from the West, it will take a long time for open access journals to gain the same level of prestige. In resource-poor countries, where training the next generation of young scientists is undermined by the lack of access to expensive journals, open access journals can make all the difference.

The economic barriers seem to exacerbate the already existing inequalities among researchers in the West and in Africa. However, there are solutions to these problems. They are not overnight fixes, but implemented over time, they can positively transform the situation.

Potential Solutions

One type of solution is offered by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF). The Global Gathering event held every two years is a global forum designed to level the playing field in science. The NEF places African researchers front and center, where they belong. The event will convene 500 of the most outstanding thinkers from Africa and around the world and feature 15 top young scientists from Africa.

The goal is to cultivate the next generation of African scientists and leaders who will be the ones to lead open access journals, mentor African students to pursue science, influence science policy and attitudes on the continent to fight and challenge the residue of the colonial past, conduct research that may win them the next Nobel prize, and create entrepreneurial projects that address the needs of the continent and advance new ways of thinking in frontier science.

To be sure, Nordling warns against overstating the gains made in Africa’s fight for equality. After all, there is much work to do. But one surefire way to make changes is to involve more partners and elicit funding on the part of African governments, individuals, institutions and companies. With more stakeholders on board in any scientific project, it limits the ability of any one group to dominate or exploit the others. Having strong support from African funders and governments also sends the signal to Western counterparts that they cannot disrespect local scientists without grave repercussions.

Making it widely known that they have the backing of strong actors renders the African researchers less vulnerable to being relegated to second-class status. Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, and Rwanda are success stories in this regard.

Furthermore, Forbes and other magazines have highlighted the rise of “billionaire philanthropists” in Africa [4]. Now is the time for African tycoons such as Ugandan Ashish Thakkar and Sudanese Mo Ibrahim, among others, to step in and make their voices heard in the international scientific communities. For example, Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa and Nigeria’s first billionaire, made an estimated $35 million donations to philanthropic endeavors in 2012. He could launch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket 583 times and fund an entire Jet Propulsion laboratory in Africa led by African scientists with that amount. 

With a cadre of supportive stakeholders in the scientific community, including commitment from African governments and institutions like NEF and AIMS, stellar scientists like the NEF Fellows, and buy-in from wealthy Africans, international institutions will be forced to shed neocolonialist attitudes and engage in genuinely equitable partnerships. Affected researchers may still have to struggle, as Zambian biochemist Kelly Chibale states in the Nature article, but they will have to struggle far less.


[1]  Dieter Neubert, Academic Cooperation between Germany andd Africa – Challenges and some lessons learnt, in Academic Cooperation with Africa: Lessons for Partnership in Higher Education, eds. Eike W. Schamp, Stefan Schmid, (New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 100.

[2] Tamer M. Fouad, Ebola Outbreak Highlights Struggle for Science in Africa and Inequalities in Global Health Research, November 2014,

[3] Denise Grady, White Doctors Black Subjects: Abuse Disguised as Research, Jan. 23, 2007,

[4] Giving Back: The Face of Africa’s New Donors, April 5, 2015,