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20 years of African Neuroscience: Waking a sleeping giant

MB Maina, U Ahmad, HA Ibrahim, SK Hamidu, FE Nasr, AT Salihu, AI Abushouk, M Abdurrazak, MA Awadelkareem, A Amin, A Imam, ID Akinrinade, AH Yakubu, IA Azeez, GM Yunusa, AA Adamu, HB Ibrahim, AM Bukar, AU Yaro, LL Prieto-Godino, T Baden

Preprint posted on June 04, 2020 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.06.03.131391v1

Beyond science: understanding African research in neuroscience

Selected by Mariana De Niz

Background

Understanding the brain in health and disease, remains a key challenge. However, up to now, the majority of brain research is carried out in the Global North, while research from the Global South remains sparse. In their work, Maina et al (1) point out the need for devising new policies to boost Africa’s neuroscience research, and the fact that such policies must be based on accurate data reflecting the heterogeneity of research outputs across the 54 countries in the continent. The authors analysed Africa’s output on neuroscience over the past 21 years, focusing specifically on work performed in Africa and led by African-based researchers- as previous estimates suggested that as much as 80% of published health research with African authors was not led/performed in Africa (2). From this output, they analysed impact metrics, as well as details on funding, collaborations, techniques, and model systems used. They linked this data to indicators of mobility and economy, and compare it to metrics from selected countries in the Global North. This work’s aim is to set the basis to make actionable recommendations to support African research in the future.

Figure 1. 20 years of African neuroscience: the research landscape (from Ref. 1).

Key findings

The main findings of the study by Maina et al are summarized below in key points of the study.

Research landscape: Africa’s neuroscience output since 1997 has been dominated by Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia, who account for over 75% of neuroscience papers published in the continent. A further 6-9% is contributed to by Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania, while 6-12% is contributed to by Cameroon, Malawi, Algeria, Senegal, Uganda and Ghana. Beyond these countries, over half of the remaining African countries contribute fewer than 10 papers. However, neuroscience publications have exponentially increased across Africa over the last two decades, suggesting greatly a trend of future growth.

 

Research topics: Main research topics targeted by African labs include neurodegeneration and injury, techniques, excitability, synapses and glia, development and physiology and behavior, while less targeted topics included motivation and emotion, motor systems, cognition, and sensory systems. The authors found that the contribution over time and topics has been consistent.

 

Relation to economy and governance metrics: The authors related each country’s total number of neuroscience publications to metrics of economy, population, and governance (corruption index). They found a positive correlation between neuroscience output and wealth and resources, and a negative correlation to high corruption index.

 

Visibility: The authors assessed international visibility and communication outputs of African neuroscience by way of citation numbers and impact factor. Comparison with several non-African countries showed many papers were parallel in visibility, however, they noted high regional variation in these metrics. Moreover, at least a small fraction of papers were considered among neuroscience’s most influential work. They conclude that African neuroscience’s influence on the world’s production of knowledge is significant, and growing.

 

International collaborations: The authors discuss the barriers faced by African science in terms of engaging in collaborative work with colleagues abroad, whereby for example funding and visa- related processes hinder collaboration. Despite these barriers, African-led neuroscience publications resultant from collaborations tend to be cited more frequently, and in higher impact factor journals. The study evaluated collaborations between researchers in different African countries, as well as beyond the borders of the continent. The authors further found a geographic and cultural pattern, whereby inter-African collaborations seemed to be between West, East and Central African countries with South Africa, while North African labs seemed to seek collaborations within the region or with Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The authors further suggest that the identified networks are linked to underlying factors such as historic, linguistic, economic and cultural ties, and they point out that this relatively poor international connectedness should be considered in future efforts aiming to build a united African research landscape.

 

Funders of African neuroscience: The authors investigated funders of African neuroscience within the papers, and found that many papers did not declare funding. Of those papers that did declare funding, the majority were supported by international rather than domestic agencies, with some variations across regions, with Southern Africa being the exception. They identify that the availability of local rather than international funding is critical for building a viable research culture. However, 46% of Africa’s top neuroscience papers declared international funding, showing that external money invested into African research has indeed had an important impact. Most of this international funding came from the USA, the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany.

 

Advanced and basic techniques: Understanding the availability of state-of-the-art tools for research in Africa Is pivotal for developing a strategy to support future research. With this aim, the authors categorized the methods used in the various papers as ‘basic’ (including histology, chromatography and behavior) or ‘advanced’ (including fluorescence microscopy, molecular biology and cell culture work). Except for The Gambia (linked to MRC-funded research), ‘advanced’ methods were rarely used.

 

Model organisms: There was a near complete absence of small, low-cost and genetically tractable model systems such as fruit flies, zebrafish or C. elegans, as well as genetically modified model systems including cell culture and mice. This leads the authors to conclude that promotion of model systems should be considered as part of strategies aimed at modernizing Africa’s research landscape.

 

Medicinal plants: The authors evaluated medicinal plant studies given their relevance for drug discovery. They found that research in this field is highly diverse across the continent, with Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana being countries heavily involved in this aspect of research.

All data is available at https://github.com/BadenLab/AfricanNeuroscience.

 

What I like about this preprint

I think this is an exciting and very complete study aiming to generate a detailed view of the current landscape of neuroscience research in Africa, with the aim of identifying key areas that need to be addressed to support African research in the years to come. I think the work was integrative, considering multiple key aspects as varied as historical and cultural links between countries, availability of tools, and sources of funding among others. I learned a lot from this work, and I hope it will help indeed to address key issues and promote the presence of African research in the global scientific landscape.

 

References

  1. Maina MB, et al 20 years of African Neuroscience: waking a sleeping giant, bioRxiv, 2020.
  2. Gautier L, Sieleunou I, Kalolo A. Deconstructing the notion of “global health research partnerships” across Northern and African contexts. BMC medical ethics 19, 49-49, 2018

 

 

Posted on: 10th July 2020

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.22725

Read preprint (1 votes)




Author's response

Mahmoud Maina, Lucia Prieto Godino, Thomas Baden shared

Open questions 

1.I think your study allows a better understanding of the research landscape in Africa, which at least I was not very aware of the multiple key factors you identified. I think as a scientist it is important to understand these factors. Moreover, as you mention, your aim is that this sets a basis for actionable strategies to improve Africa’s research engagement, communication and output in the future.. Looking to ‘the past’. what motivated you to address this topic in the first place? Looking to the future, having identified the various key points in your study, how will you promote policy implementation or changes that use what you have found, to contribute to African research in neuroscience?

Most of the authors started their research careers in Africa and are acutely aware of some of the challenges facing African Neuroscience. However, at the same time we were unsure about the extent and heterogeneity of these challenges across the continent. Moreover, we have been organising more than 20 multi-week and hands-on summer schools through TReND in Africa since 2011 (www.TReNDinAfrica.org), and in the course of that we intimately interacted with close to 500 African Neuroscientists from all over the continent. Each year, our students share stories about the challenges they face in undertaking their research, which routinely includes the lack of access to advanced research equipment and absence of genetically tractable model systems. It was also not clear who is funding their research, and many noted that most of their research is self-funded. A combination of these reasons initially motivated us to undertake this study. However, along the line we became interested in collecting other metrics to for example also assess the level of collaboration between scientists on the continent, and the global visibility and impact of African Neuroscience.

Clearly, our work has identified many areas that could increase the robustness of African Neuroscience. For example, our work suggests that local, rather than (or in addition to) international funding is key for a viable Neuroscience environment in Africa. For this to happen, we think that local support for African science has to first be inspired through wider science communication and outreach activities to stakeholders. Here the logic is quite simple: if the general population does not strongly value domestic science, their governments likely won’t either. To this end, since 2013, we have been organising public engagement activities in Africa at primary, secondary and tertiary education tier institutions and to policymakers through the TReND Outreach Programme. Through these activities, African scientists organise events to communicate their research findings, their importance and the need for increased science funding. To date over 50 activities have been organised across Africa and this has led to the development of dedicated platforms to promote such engagements, such as the African science Literacy Network (ASLN) and Science Communication Hub Nigeria.  These platforms enable scientists and journalists to work together towards promoting local research to key stakeholders. For example, a few journalists from the ASLN Network have already written about this African Neuroscience pre-print in local media platforms.

We also collaborate with the Society of Neuroscientists of Africa (SONA) to organise meetings and webinars for scientists and the public. In addition to scientists, these webinars also attract journalists and government officials, through which we hope to create discussions that will influence policies about Neuroscience research in Africa.

Moreover, our findings suggest a need for the re-orientation of external support for African Neuroscience. TReND has a good relationship with the International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO), The International Society for Neurochemistry and the Wellcome Trust, who are some of the funders of African Neuroscience research and training programmes. We hope to engage these organisations to ensure our findings are put to good use in shaping future Neuroscience activities in Africa.

2.As a bit of background, I am a parasitologist. Among the research topics you mentioned as highly covered in research led by African labs, I was surprised not to find infection-related neurological pathology as a category. Was this included as part of the other research topics mentioned (eg. pathology or injury)? I imagine the output of African research to topics including sleeping sickness, cerebral malaria, Toxoplasma gondii, must be very high. Derived from this, I was wondering how/whether the relation of a specific topic (e.g. brain compromise in infection) to larger areas of research (malaria, neglected tropical diseases) might impact visibility, funding, collaborations, etc? And if so, whether this (the translational potential) is a potential baseline that can be used to increase these aspects at least as an initial step that can provide the resources and funding for basic research as well?

We decided to stick to the categorisation from Carandini (2019) who followed the Neuroscience research themes based on the itineraries at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Based on this, the majority of infection-related studies from our study fell under the ‘Neurodegenerative disorders and injury’ theme, while a few fell under ‘Research techniques’ theme. Of these, studies related to Malaria were very prevalent indeed (>80%) compared to others such as e.g. Toxoplasma gondii or sleeping sickness. Although, the number of infection-related studies were overall not higher than other areas, we do agree that this field might definitely impact the visibility, funding and collaborations with African labs, since these are conditions endemic to Africa. A substantial portion of funding from the major funders of African science, such as the Melina and Gates foundation, NIH and Wellcome Trust, goes towards research on such diseases. Thus, African Neuroscience could definitely benefit from this sentiment to boost funding for Neuroscientists in the continent.

A key aspect you focused your work on, is research led by African scientists. You mentioned in your work the relative scarcity of African scientists compared to other countries. I was wondering what is your opinion on this as another key factor for research output? For instance, if this scarcity is due to lack of interest in this area of work, lack of engagement with science in general (and why), brain drain, access to education, etc? And if so, how can this also be addressed for future strategies to promote African research in neuroscience.

Yes, the number of research scientists could influence the research output in Africa. However just having more people keen to contribute by itself is not enough. The infrastructure, including funding for them to meaningfully do so must also be in place. Moreover, this may not be equally the case in all countries. Publication record is one of the key criteria for promotions in most African institutions, and scientists are therefore keen to publish widely. However, many such publications end up in unindexed journals and some fall for the tricks of predatory publishers. Since we used PubMed to extract articles used in our study, many Neuroscience publications in unindexed journals would be left out – as they would also be from search efforts by the majority of scientists worldwide. This is why there is a need for training of researchers on publishing and also ways to recognise predatory publishers. African institutions could even introduce academic promotion guidelines that reward publications in indexed journals since that would also lead to increased visibility for the institutions. However, there is equally a clear need for these journals, which are often controlled by publishers in the ‘Global North’, to recognise the challenges faced by African researchers and encourage them to patronise their journals, for example by reducing or waiving publication fees. In fact, in case of exceptional hardship many publishers are prepared to do this on a case-by-case basis, but this is perhaps not widely known and also not publicly advertised on most journal’s websites.

Other future strategies to promote Neuroscience in Africa should include an increase in funding for research infrastructure and research cost. This can be achieved through local, international and philanthropic funding schemes. However here it is paramount that this investment goes into actual lab infrastructure (i.e. lab equipment and reagents), rather than, as is often the case, the actual building. Some African universities have a great many grandiose buildings on extensive grounds, but when you look into the actual labs, many are abandoned or have never been equipped and used. These are often politically motivated building projects that are only peripherally geared to meaningfully boost research, rather to make the campus appear in top shape from the outside. Existing money that finance such projects could be better spent.

In hand, there is a clear need for training of researchers to adopt cheap but yet powerful model systems that would also lead to publications in good journals. Importantly, African Neuroscientists need to look inward, to promote local collaboration across disciplines and departments to create a robust neuroscience environment.

3.I find very interesting the aspect of visibility that you touched upon in your work. I was wondering how do you envisage that visibility of research led by African labs can be improved in the future? as this will also serve the purpose of improving funding, collaborations, and probably have a ripple effect of engagement in science by young African students.

One of the major ways to increase the visibility of African labs is through their participation in conferences to meet other researchers in the field and build collaborations. But given the funding challenges in Africa, there is a need for conference organisers to make special grant provisions to support African researchers.  Moreover, visas to actually travel can be difficult to obtain, especially for key scientific powerhouses like the USA. This type of impasse must be addressed from governments worldwide.

There is also a need for African researchers to develop their research niche that they would be known for. At the moment, many African neuroscientists work on rather diverse research questions, both within and outside the neuroscience discipline. This often happens due to the pressure to publish and the lack of developed research infrastructure to support these researchers from pursuing one research angle, as often the case in the ‘Global North’. This will affect their growth and thus, visibility as research leaders in a specific discipline.

I was wondering in the aspect of methods/tool accessibility, is there anything beyond funding, hindering the use of genetically modified models and advanced techniques?

Electricity, lack of training on the use of research equipment, difficulty in procuring consumables for the equipment or management of equipment are among the major hindrance for the use of cutting-edge methods in African labs. Often, some labs have the equipment, but the cost of repair is very high. Thus, once the equipment becomes dysfunctional, it is left in that condition. Procuring and suitably storing everyday consumables is also another major hurdle since they are highly expensive often due to transportation cost from outside Africa, and because many need reliable refrigeration/freezing. The cost of procurement, transportation and adherence to international guidelines for the use of transgenic animals also contribute to the low usage of transgenic animals. Even if available, the lack of molecular tools to manage transgenic animal research is a huge hindrance. The lack of collaboration between researchers in different departments also contributes to the lack of access to some high-tech equipment or animal models. Unlike in the ‘Global North’, actual dedicated “Neuroscience departments” in Africa are scarce. As a result, the Neuroscience workforce is spread across departments which usually have little interaction with one another.

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