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Clusters of Excellence to boost Africa’s research capacity

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Picture: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya – Duncan Onyango, a game design developer at Planet Rackus works on MA3Racer, a 2D mobile game inside his studio in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Industry analysts have long hailed the explosive growth of mobile telecoms in sub-Saharan Africa.

By Edwin Naidu

One cannot emphasize the importance of creating clusters of excellence to strengthen Africa’s research capacities. In a decisive move for African academics showing that not all talk shops contribute to global warming, the recent linkup between the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities and the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) will significantly impact the universities involved in the coming year.

It was about reframing global science relations between African academics who will collaborate with European counterparts to address critical global challenges. Academics involved in the project are excited about the benefits of working together to create a better world.

Last month’s summit at the University of Cape Town saw university leaders from across Europe and Africa laying the foundations for new types of partnerships based on equity and inclusion.

The discussions were framed by the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda, as the Vice-Chancellors and Presidents agreed to work towards creating Clusters of Excellence to strengthen Africa’s research capacities.

Ensuring a solid start to their plans for 2023 and putting the joint vision for the Clusters of Excellence into practice, the summit agreed on the critical need that researchers from member universities would now be invited to identify together across the two continents, pressing challenges of mutual interest within the broad framework for collaboration agreed at the meeting.

African researchers will benefit immensely from this initiative driven by ARUA, which comprises heavyweight institutions from the continent. Members of ARUA are the Addis Ababa University, University of Cape Town, University Cheikh Anta Diop, University of Dar es Salaam, University of Ghana, University of Ibadan, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Lagos, Makerere University, University of Mauritius, University of Nairobi, University of Pretoria, Rhodes University, University of Rwanda, University of Stellenbosch, and, the University of the Witwatersrand.

During the discussions, the university leaders exchanged views with Maria Cristina Russo, Director for Global Approach and International Collaboration at the European Commission, on how universities must be central to implementing the AU-EU Innovation Agenda. They emphasized that investing in the scientific capacity of Africa’s public universities would be vital to achieving the African Union’s vision to become a knowledge society by 2063.

The meeting welcomed the joint vision agreed by political leaders at the 2022 EU-AU summit to ‘step up’ ‘scientific cooperation between researchers based on the AU-EU Innovation Agenda. They agreed that many solutions to common global challenges would come from Africa. Vice- Chancellors, and Presidents underlined an urgency in boosting Africa’s science capacity, urging policymakers to put in place mean to enable universities and researchers to achieve this vision for the long term.

African institutions will team up with The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, founded in 2016 and made up of 21 of Europe’s top research-intensive universities in 16 countries and is dedicated to enhancing the voice of academic institutions, their researchers, and their students. They include Aarhus University, Babeș-Bolyai University, University of Bern, University of Bologna, Ghent University, University of Glasgow, University of Göttingen, University of Groningen, Jagiellonian University, King’s College London, University of Ljubljana, UCLouvain in Belgium, University of Oslo, Université Paris Cité, Pompeu Fabra University, and Radboud University, University of Tartu, University of Tübingen, Uppsala University, University of Vienna, and, University of Warwick.

ARUA and The Guild universities also expressed a commitment that their practical collaboration must be underpinned by a vision that makes a difference in lives – through supporting and training future researchers, the expertise graduates bring into their communities and the economic and social impact of our cutting-edge collaborative research.

Discussions were framed by the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda, as Vice-Chancellors, Rectors, and their deputies agreed to work towards the creation of Clusters of Excellence, with an ambition to strengthen Africa’s research capacities based on the principle of equity.

This would include creating joint doctoral schools and developing new ideas for making a difference in society through research, teaching, and public engagement. The meeting also agreed on the importance of developing a long-term vision for long-term world-class infrastructure investment, a vital ambition of the AU-EU Innovation Agenda.

Academics involved in the discussions look forward to this partnership making a tangible difference.

Barnabas Nawangwe, Chair of ARUA, said the joint meeting in Cape Town provided an opportunity for reflection on how mutually beneficial systems could be developed to grow research and graduate training programs. “ The Cape Town meeting helped us agree on prioritizing our joint activities as we move in this direction.”

Svein Stølen, Chair of The Guild, said: “After intense discussions in Cape Town, Vice-Chancellors and Rectors have agreed on a new approach towards creating Clusters of Excellence that will identify and address common societal challenges. We will now bring our researchers together to identify the scientific frontiers we must overcome in our mutual interests. Our joint endeavour requires a long-term commitment from our universities and the passion and expertise of our researchers.”

Ernest Aryeetey, Secretary-General of ARUA, said the ARUA universities are strongly committed to collaboration, first with one another and then with The Guild, and that this alliance would lead to a departure from the ‘business-as-usual’ approach to university partnerships. “Working together is intended to confront all obstacles to enhanced research capacity and graduate training in Africa. This arrangement should help tackle the ‘brain drain’ innovatively with a much higher likelihood of success. The AU-EU Innovation Agenda provides a useful framework for planning our engagements in a very structured manner. The operationalization of the program is being pursued in a very equitable manner, emphasizing mutual respect.”

Jan Palmowski, Secretary-General of The Guild, said that perhaps the most crucial source of agreement in Cape Town was the transformative nature of how they could build science capacities in Africa with European partners. “To achieve this, we need the active support of policy-makers at the national levels as well as in the EU and the AU, and it is now essential that we reflect together on what it will take to turn the draft AU-EU Innovation Agenda into reality.”

Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow, added that the highly successful ARUA-The Guild joint meeting in Cape Town has further consolidated their collective commitment to African-European engagement to respond to the most pressing challenges facing humanity. “The creation of Clusters of Excellence will require sustainable, equitable, and interdisciplinary approaches with a focus on delivering truly transformational impact for the communities that we serve and beyond. Engaging researchers across both continents, alongside a favourable policy and funding framework, will be vital to ensure we can deliver the ambitious goals in the AU-EU Innovation Agenda.”

Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, said the partnership would contribute to the building, strengthening, and sustaining of research capacity and capability, which will unlock the incredible human talent on the African continent for the benefit of its people and humanity.

“Rhodes University is excited to be an active player in this initiative, which will not only further strengthen its pre-eminent position as a research-intensive university but will take us a step forward in building a better, inclusive, and sustainable future for the African continent in particular, and humanity, in general.”

This could potentially result in a significant impact on research through collaboration and sharing of ideas. But more importantly, its effects in helping to make the world better. Now that would be a positive start to the new year.

Naidu is the Impact Editor of SciDev.Net and heads Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.

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