Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on science has been large, disrupting the conduct of wide-ranging research and forcing scientists to scale down or completely stop work on finding solutions to some of the pressing problems facing our society.
Some of the major research activities that have been affected by the pandemic include the R & D pursuits taken up by the Research Council of Zimbabwe (RCZ) in partnership with regional and international research institutes and bodies such as the International Research and Development Centre in Canada, the National Commission of Science and Technology in Malawi and the Botswana Innovation Hub.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected many researchers, students and academics. Research institutions of higher education have limited in-person activities, research and training have been disrupted and access to critical research materials has also been compounded.
Access to lab equipment and programmes has been a challenge for researchers on the RCZ regional and international research partnership programmes.
Access to some of the statistical software used in key labs has been restricted as institutions enforced strict Covid-19 policies that prevented most researchers from accessing labs.
Among the hardest hit initiatives, is the one in which the RCZ and the National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) of Malawi are participating in Phase Two of the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI).
A total of 16 African countries, including Zimbabwe, are participating in the SGCI programme.
This initiative was supposed to build on Phase One of SGCI’s objective of seeking to strengthen the capacities of Science Granting Councils (SGCs) in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to support research and evidence-based policies that will contribute to socio-economic development.
This initiative is jointly funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), now known as the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Zimbabwe, Botswana and Malawi have agreed to undertake collaborative research to bolster their strategic cooperation in agriculture biotechnology and minerals technology.
Under the agreement, the RCZ will manage the programme which will be implemented in universities and research institutions in the three countries.
Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana are parties to the SGCI.
Researchers from the three countries were expected to collaborate in research in agriculture biotechnology, looking at the fields of either plant biotechnology or animal biotechnology.
Key areas of focus that have been affected include research in fish breeding, medicinal proteins and industrial enzymes development, production of bio-fertilisers with plant nutrition enhancement, development of nano-engineering reagents for mineral froth flotation, and coal beneficiation.
Researchers held a Scinnovent Centre virtual regional meeting last year to review the research programmes.
“Much as there is a slow movement back to normalcy, Covid-19 challenges remain a major hindrance to project implementation.
“The participating countries are under different levels of lockdown. This has put monitoring programmes in abeyance. Even project implementation has been affected in some way or another by Covid-19,” researchers noted in a report of the meeting.
Apart from challenges brought about by the Covid-19 induced lockdown, late disbursement of funds also compounded problems for the researchers.
Scientists and other stakeholders feel strongly that there is a need to clear the path for innovation and ingenuity and unleash the tremendous promise of biotechnology to help solve many of the biggest challenges facing Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa today.
They say biotechnology, despite resistance and fears, had the potential to lead to the development of new drugs and diagnostics for improved human health, higher-yielding food crops, biofuels to reduce dependency on oil and bio-based chemical intermediates.
Africa bears a disproportionately high burden of disease and has lagged in knowledge production to address its health challenges and other socio-economic development.
This SGCI initiative spearheaded by RCZ, is expected to strengthen the research capacity of scientists in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana.
“Given the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to strengthen the synchronisation of research activities,” the scientists said in a report.
“It is important for researchers to synchronise their research activities. This would enable the simultaneous conduct of research in both countries.”
Expectations are also high that this initiative will spur African-led research on the continent and push for a paradigm shift and innovative approach to finding solutions by scientists in Africa.
Despite the challenges that came with the pandemic, stakeholders and scientists feel strongly that such initiatives must continue to be supported as they are crucial in directly empowering African-based researchers.
Apart from this, the initiative also offers quality training and career development opportunities to large numbers of junior African scientists and support staff.
This has the benefit of reducing the impact of brain drain.
In addition, long-term investment from international donors and increasing funding commitments from African governments and other funding partners will be needed to realise a critical mass of local capacity and to create and sustain world-class research hubs that will drive the generation of solutions to Africa’s intractable challenges.
Africa comprises 15 percent of the world’s population and bears 25 percent of the global disease burden and produces only 2 percent of the world’s research output, according to various global reports.
Experts say challenges that contribute to this poor research output include — a shortage of well-trained and skilled researchers resulting in poor supervision of higher degree scholars, a lack of a critical mass of researchers even where pockets of excellence exist, weak or very limited progression pathways for those in scientific careers and poor research infrastructure including a lack of access to scholarly tools such as scientific literature.
Despite the problems, it is encouraging that over the past decade Zimbabwe and most other regional countries have significantly increased investments in research and capacity building.
Zimbabwe and other regional countries are investing in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) capabilities in order to respond to the socio-economic challenges they face and to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union Agenda 2063.
Given that the Covid-19 pandemic is still here with us, it is important for our scientists to devise strategies that will drive research initiatives forward to help Zimbabwe and other regional countries to benefit from solutions that aim to promote economic growth and eradicate poverty.