Now is the time to catalyze data science and health innovation in Africa

In this Perspective, the Director of the John E. Fogarty International Center, discusses a new U.S. National Institutes of Health program to help ensure African scientists are prepared to lead the coming surge of big data research on the continent

Dr. Roger Glass
Dr. Roger Glass
©Dr. Roger Glass

Data-driven science and innovation are the health currencies of the future. They have enormous potential to revolutionize science, speed discoveries, and strengthen health care systems in Africa. To ensure African scientists are prepared to lead the coming surge of big data research, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investing US$75 million over five years in the Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) program. This initiative will leverage data and technologies to help African scientists develop knowledge and craft solutions for the continent’s most pressing clinical and public health problems.

Awards will establish a consortium consisting of seven research hubs; seven data science research training programs; four projects focused on studying the ethical, legal, and social implications of data science research; and a data science platform and coordinating center. Through the combined efforts of all its initiatives, DS-I Africa is intended to use data science to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems through a robust ecosystem of new partners from academic, government, and private sectors.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) will develop and manage the initiative’s open data science platform and coordinating center, building on previous NIH investments in UCT’s data and informatics capabilities made through the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) program. UCT will provide a flexible, scalable platform for the DS-I Africa researchers, so they can find and access data, select tools and workflows, and run analyses through collaborative workspaces. UCT will also administer and support core resources as well as coordinate consortium activities.

The research hubs—all to be led by African institutions—will apply novel approaches to data analysis and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address critical health issues. Examples include employing AI to identify women at risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes, advancing medical imaging to improve diagnosis of eye disease and cervical cancer, developing a portable screening tool for bacterial infections, and strengthening pandemic preparedness.

The research training programs, which leverage partnerships with U.S. institutions, will create multi-tiered curricula to build skills in foundational health data science, with options ranging from master’s and doctoral degree tracks, to postdoctoral training and faculty development. A mix of in-person and remote training will be offered to build skills in topics such as applied mathematics, biostatistics, epidemiology, clinical informatics, analytics, computational omics, biomedical imaging, machine intelligence, computer science, and engineering. Trainees will receive intensive mentoring and participate in internships to learn how to apply data science concepts to medical and public health areas including the social determinants of health, climate change, infectious diseases, noncommunicable diseases, and health surveillance.

Recognizing that data science research may uncover potential ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI), the consortium will include dedicated ELSI research teams that will be embedded in the research hubs to address these topics. This will include efforts to develop evidence-based, context-specific guidance for the conduct and governance of data science initiatives. Researchers will evaluate current legal instruments and guidelines to develop new and innovative governance frameworks for data science health research in Africa. They will explore legal differences across regions of the continent as well as investigate public attitudes regarding data science approaches for healthcare.

With DS-I Africa, NIH is supporting an African-led innovation and data science consortium that seeks to disrupt the status quo and spur new mechanisms to utilize data in ways that can transform how countries work. We envision a robust network of public and private partners supporting a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, accelerating scientific discoveries, devising new software solutions and technologies, generating start-ups and spinoff companies, and collaborating with governments and businesses to reach scale and improve health. Discoveries made possible by data science advances in Africa have the potential to benefit the entire world, since we are all from Africa—the cradle of humanity—and share a common inheritance.

The program has attracted collaborators from multiple sectors, uniting data specialists, computer scientists, and engineers with biomedical researchers, clinicians, and other health experts in interdisciplinary teams. We invite African governments, industry, and other research funders to join our efforts to synergistically increase their reach and impact.

DS-I Africa is a program of the NIH Common Fund, which supports innovative endeavors with the potential for extraordinary impact. The initiative is guided by a working group led by Common Fund staff in the Office of the Director, the Fogarty International Center, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, and the National Library of Medicine.

This investment comes at a critical time as Africa stands at an inflection point. Expansion of R&D, manufacturing, and connectivity have positioned the continent for explosive growth in health innovation. Its population is rapidly expanding, with the number of people under the age of 25 predicted to almost double by 2050, rising from 230 million to 450 million. High-speed internet connectivity is improving and sub-Saharan Africa is expected to have over 600 million unique mobile phone subscribers by 2025.

The 20th century has demonstrated that innovations in technology and investments in research have been among the most powerful and cost-effective ways to advance economic development and improve health and prosperity. COVID-19 has clearly shown us the need to strengthen African research capacity to respond to health issues with African solutions.

Sustainable advances usually require a well-developed research agenda and an educated workforce trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) capable of carrying it out. We must think about things differently.

First, we need to refocus our training in STEM from rote memory learning to critical thinking and problem solving. We need to think about how to foster creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Second, we must recognize that team science is essential. Health scientists must join together with engineers, data scientists, businesspeople, and marketers. Understanding and identifying local priorities for health research will guide investments in solutions that will make a difference. We’re now investing in teams to do this kind of research, where each member brings a unique perspective to the table to develop products, find solutions, and bring these solutions and products to market rather than simply conducting research, publishing papers, and supporting academic promotions.

Third, governments and industry should come together to develop activities such as biotech parks filled with spaces where new ideas from academia can be incubated and accelerated into products that improve health and can be brought to scale.

We see huge opportunities with Africa’s rapidly expanding population of young people who will be the stimulus for these activities in the future. We need to encourage young scientists as they progress in their career and help them develop career paths, find ways to keep them on the continent, support emerging leaders, and make them part of the solution. We believe that in the next few decades, economic advances in Africa will be driven by innovations in science, and technology, leading to improvements in health. Finally, progress will be made by finding local solutions to local problems aided by global collaborations and partnerships.

NIH plans to remain an active participant. We realize progress is measured over decades and we are committed for the long haul.

Dr Roger I. Glass is an American physician-scientist who serves as the Director of the John E. Fogarty International Center, which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health