Too often over the years, we’ve seen scientists from Africa train for PhDs in various disciplines outside of the region and not return. This has raised a perennial question: How can we create a supportive environment where young scientists in Africa get the support they need locally, have the chance to visit laboratories and institutions outside of the continent, and return home?
In this context, we face a range of tests in the region. Recent coups and upheavals in West Africa remind us that, depending on the challenges at home, a PhD could take much longer to complete than expected. Other challenges also exist. In West Africa, language barriers between the Anglophone and Francophone countries is one of the biggest challenges, and barriers such as these stand in the way of collaboration across institutions and hinder networking among scientists.
Even within institutions, the insufficient support for our young scientists is systemic. Few senior scientists are available to support the large number of students trained in our institutions annually, and the absence of such support could add additional years to the quest for a PhD.
There are measures to address some of these challenges. For example, through the African Institutions Initiative, the Wellcome Trust is supporting seven African-led Consortia made up of 50 Institutions across 18 African countries, with partner Institutions in the UK, Europe, and the United States.
In West Africa, I direct the Research Institution for Infectious Diseases of Poverty (RIIDP/IIDP), currently hosted by the Dodowa Health Research Centre of the Ghana Health Service. This consortium brings together Anglophone and Francophone universities and research institutions from Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Nigeria, and partners from the UK, Switzerland, and Malaysia. The overall aim is to develop the intellectual, regulatory, and physical infrastructure required for the production of the high quality interdisciplinary science necessary to address the problems of infectious diseases of poverty.
In the last four years, the IIDP has made some strides to support and expose our trainees to environments that will support their training. Four of our PhD fellows—from Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali—have presented their research at this year’s 6th MIM Pan-African Malaria Conference. It’s a small step, but already we can see some of the language barriers coming down, as the fellows have had a chance to exchange ideas with other scientists. We must increase these opportunities for our fellows—not only within the malaria disease field—but in other areas such as tuberculosis as well. My hope is for increased opportunities, more solid multidisciplinary institutions, and the strengthening of scientific networks in Africa with programs that train and retain our young scientists.