Dr. Richard G. Wyatt (l) of the Office of Intramural Research makes a point at the Fogarty-sponsored summit on sub-Saharan Africa. Also shown are Dr. Onesmo ole-MoiYoi (c) of Kenya and NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Converting a brain drain into a “brain gain” occupied science leaders from sub-Saharan nations, Africans who now work in U.S. labs and NIH leadership at a recent summit on African research cosponsored by the Fogarty International Center, the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
The conference on campus drew more than 100 people, including representatives from 25 of the 27 institutes and centers and came 2 weeks before the worldwide health research gathering in Bamako, Mali. In Bamako, health ministers urged countries to spend at least 2 percent of their health budgets on research and 5 percent on charities.
Dr. Charles Rotimi, the Nigerian-born-and-educated director of the NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health, noted the high level of research that is already going on in the region and asked the central question: “How do we change from a brain drain to a brain gain for the region?”
The imperative to strengthen the scientific research enterprise stems from sub-Saharan Africa’s high level of disease, low level of trained medical professionals and actual decline in life expectancy in recent years, said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.
The challenge, he said, is “the retention of trained medical professionals…to induce them to return to their home countries, where the need is even greater.”
NIH has had a long-standing relationship with African researchers both as a result of extramural grant funding as well as its intramural program, said FIC director Dr. Roger Glass. The goal of the meeting was to better understand specific actions NIH could take to bolster the scientific research enterprise in the poorest countries of the continent, including making use of the expatriate scientists.
“As development agencies and private foundations recognize the relationship between health and development, we must establish more systematic working arrangements between academic health centers and these organizations to more fully integrate biomedical and behavioral research into health and assistance programs,” said Dr. Raynard Kington, NIH acting director. “This can only happen if we create more opportunities for scientist-to-scientist interactions, facilitate institutional capacity-building and gather sufficient knowledge of one another to take hold of every available scientific opportunity.”
The shortage of mentors and innovative technology outside their home institutions and countries is a powerful lure for the best young African scientists to pursue careers in America or high-income countries, especially when African governments may not put public health or scientific research high on national agendas, participants said.
Dr. Richard G. Wyatt, deputy director of NIH’s intramural program, said only a small percentage of the more than 3,000 foreign postdocs on campus are from Africa. He suggested adopting a program modeled on the 40-year-old U.S.-Japan Cooperative Medical Sciences Program.