Challenges and solutions for stronger research ethics in Africa

Research ethics in Africa is critical. They are the foundation of good research and protect the well-being of all involved. They minimise bias and avoid exploitation. They provide more accurate and reliable results. And in turn, this builds integrity and trust among policymakers and the public.

Conversely, questionable practices in innovation and research can be damaging. They can ruin the reputation of the scientists involved. They can also negatively impact the status of those scientists’ countries. Ultimately, unethical conduct affects the knowledge generated by the research. Results created from disputed practices erode trust in science.

A new policy brief to evaluate research ethics in Africa

In 2023, the Scinnovent Centre in Kenya published policy brief on research ethics in Africa. It did this under the Science Granting Councils Initiative (SGCI). The policy brief considers how the role of African Science Granting Councils (SGCs) can be strengthened. And it looks at how the councils can promote ethics and integrity in research and innovation. Fifteen members from SGCs across Africa participated in the data collection for the policy brief.*

The SGCs are essentially funding organisations for research. How facilities, funds and resources are used ultimately falls upon them. This places a responsibility on them to safeguard ethical funding. They must ensure no misconduct affects the use of the funds. The policy brief outlines how each SGC should have research ethics policies. These policies should lay down principles for proper conduct in research. Ultimately, the policy brief explores research ethics in Africa and the SGCs’ role in them.

Research ethics in Africa – What are the challenges facing SGCs?

Between 2012 and 2013, a scoping exercise identified research ethics in Africa as a high priority for training. The study also found that “SGCs in Sub-Saharan Africa are at a low level of maturity in terms of developing, implementing and enforcing ethics practices.” Challenges include poor resource availability. But further constraints include a lack of capacity. The policy brief also details a shortage of personnel trained in research ethics. Where research ethics in Africa do exist, the policy brief details that they may need enhancement.

Improving integrity in research can have enormous benefits. And for this reason, SGCs must ensure that African research institutions prioritise ethics. This includes gaining public trust in the country in which they operate. But it also goes beyond that. Research ethics protects all involved, from humans to animals.

Furthermore, research ethics in Africa can help countries compete globally. Ethics can boost their participation in global research initiatives. Many measures could strengthen research ethics in Africa. The policy brief outlines nine action areas. We look at some of the key recommendations highlighted under each.

Action area 1: Prioritisation of ethics and integrity

Research ethics in Africa receives too little attention. The brief identifies this as a primary challenge and calls for it to be addressed. SGCs can play a “catalytic” role. It recommends the creation of ethics coordination units, for example. And by placing ethics requirements on beneficiary institutions, they can boost the attention that ethics receives.

Action area 2: Guidelines for ethics and integrity

The brief highlights how SGCs can create their own ethical guidelines “that guide all the research they fund.” They should make it “mandatory for grantees to follow such guidelines.” Not all countries will have such procedures. In this case, knowledge sharing or learning from other countries with guidelines can help.

Action area 3: Ethics and integrity in collaborative research

SGCs raised concerns about restricted access to data and specimens. The brief considers that SGCs should help build capacity for analysing and storing data and specimens in-country. Issues of specimen shipment should be considered.

Action area 4: Implementation of ethics and integrity

Implementing research ethics in Africa is not uniform across all SGCs. The brief recommends that SGC checklists, for example, be factored into scores when reviewing proposals. Ethics coordination units could also be created to support ethics implementation.

Action area 5: Ethics and integrity in research uptake and utilisation

Research policies do not address ethics in most African countries and SGCs. The brief recommends that national governments review these policies to ensure ethics are included.

Action area 6: Ethics and integrity in stakeholder experiences

The health and medical sector has heavily influenced Research Ethics Committees (RECs). Research from other sectors can sometimes be conducted without passing through a REC. The brief recommends that SGCs ensure ethics cuts across all disciplines. Guidelines should be created for humans, animals and hazardous materials.

Action area 7: Public private partnerships

In many African countries, links between research institutions and the private sector are not strong enough. There is a lack of notable connections. The brief recommends that SGCs need to strengthen these links. SGCs should involve the private sector in research collaboration and promotion.

Action area 8: Ethics and integrity in pandemics and emergencies

Emergencies like the pandemic create challenges and delays in research. Researchers faced delays even when proposing research around COVID-19. The brief recommends that SGCs collaborate to find fast-track processes for research addressing public emergencies.

Action area 9: Gender and social inclusion

Most SGCs promote gender considerations in research. Some have gone a step further. They actively promote marginalised groups, including sexual and tribal minorities. But more can be done. The brief recommends the identification of all marginalised groups. The SGCs should look at ways in which they can be included. SGCs should also find strategies to ensure women’s inclusion in boards, committees and management.

The policy brief emphasises the importance of fostering an environment that promotes research ethics in Africa. And it details how SGCs have a critical role in bringing it about. It focuses on the facilitator role that the councils can bring to this vital area of science. SGCs can help to bring about standards of ethics excellence and trust that will elevate African countries in the eyes of the public and beyond.