We need to urgently address the North-South divide in scientific research

04 January 2022

Scientists working at the King Fahd Medical Research Center at King Abdulaziz University

By George Richards, Director of Community Jameel

Climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have both exposed and reinforced countless inequities across the world, with one of the starkest being the unequal support for the Global South’s scientific research community. 

Whether we look at climate finance or vaccine manufacturing and distribution, our responses to existential global challenges continue to be dominated by research emanating from the Global North, resulting in swingeing consequences for communities in the southern hemisphere. 

We need to tackle the historic and structural inequities in the global approach to funding scientific research and development, in which North-South collaboration is uneven, researchers in developing countries are often confined to minor roles, and funders tend to back a select group of mostly Global North institutions.

This North-South divide can hinder the effectiveness of our collective scientific responses. It can deprive research communities of the substantial intellectual capital located in developing countries, constrain scientific research to narrow paradigms from a select number of cultural settings and perspectives, and overlook the fundamental importance of local contexts in knowledge creation and policy development. 

We believe that structural changes can help to address the North-South imbalance and improve partnerships between research institutions to tackle major challenges. These include increasing access to grants, boosting capital flows to campus start-ups, and backing effective models of North-South research collaboration.

Improving access to grants

Global funders of science need to allocate more resources to grants that provide equitable access to researchers located in the Global South, and remove inherent biases that make it harder for those researchers to be successful in applying for funding. To achieve this, we must revise processes that unfairly restrict the ability of developing world scientists to compete for the largest grants, provide assistance to navigate complex – or biased – application processes, and earmark more funding for Global South research institutions. Enabling more researchers from the developing world to access grants is a critical first step.

Boosting capital to commercialise innovation

Increasing international capital flows into campuses in the Global South will help commercialise new scientific discoveries, translating research into real-world impact and building value in university ecosystems that drives more innovation and discovery. 

At Community Jameel, we have seen first-hand the effect this can have. Ayman Ismail, the Abdul Latif Jameel Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the American University in Cairo (AUC), launched the Venture Lab accelerator in 2013, and later the AUC Angels investor network, helping to nurture start-ups on campus and beyond. One of the AUC Venture Lab success stories is Swvl, a mobility start-up co-founded by an AUC graduate, which listed last year on Nasdaq in a USD 1.5bn SPAC merger. Access to funding for scientists to commercialise their discoveries can help Global South universities attract and retain talent and enhance their impact in the real world.

Strengthening and showcasing North-South collaboration

North-South collaboration between research institutes and universities does exist, but too often they are Global North-led as opposed to peer-to-peer. This means the funding and professional opportunities – as well as recognition for success – are rarely distributed evenly across regions. 

Our recently launched Jameel Fund, which drives collaboration in infectious disease research between King Abdulaziz University and Imperial College London, and the KEMRI Wellcome Trust programme, a Wellcome-backed collaboration between the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the University of Oxford, are two examples of how research collaborations between institutions of the North and South can be more equitable. Both support peer-to-peer collaboration to tackle challenges that affect us all, with North and South scientists working side by side. 

Simply put, we cannot tackle the world’s challenges – and particularly the Global South’s challenges – without supporting scientists and strengthening research institutions in the Global South. 

Funding of science can be – and generally must be – like the funding of elite athletics, which is described as ‘brutal’ for its no-compromise approach to failure. But we are narrowing the scope for breakthroughs by talented scientists in the Global South when funders tilt the scales so far in favour of institutions – generally in the Global North – that reliably deliver important scientific discoveries, but which have benefitted from a head-start with decades, sometimes centuries, of generous funding not available to counterparts in the South. Tackling inequities in science by committing more funding to universities and researchers in the Global South helps everyone – in the Global South and around the world – to tackle the challenges we face.

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