NIH Launches Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa Grant Program

August 12, 2020

By Allison Proffitt 

August 12, 2020 | In a virtual symposium this week—rescheduled from a live event in Uganda—the National Institutes of Health launched a new program: Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa). The program will leverage data science technologies and prior NIH investments 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.

“I’m particularly excited about DS-I Africa because I think it comes at a particularly incredible time of growth and opportunity,” said Francis Collins in a pre-recorded opening keynote video. “Africa is very well situated to play an increasingly significant role in this area of scientific opportunity.”

Africa carries unique populations, genes, and exposures, according to the program snapshot. Therefore, tools developed in high-income countries that are based on European populations’ data often cannot be applied in the African context. Though data science expertise exists in Africa, it is scarce and scattered throughout the continent. Health data scientists are needed to conduct policy analyses as Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) of data science research in Africa present challenges. There is a high need for clinical decision support due to a critical shortage in the medical workforce.

Collins pointed out several African organizations that are already leading the way on data science: the African Academy of Sciences, African Open Science Platform, and Data Science Africa. Data science, Collins pointed out, can be done without some of the large infrastructure investments required of other scientific disciplines. “It requires talent; it requires some internet connection. And then a great deal of things can happen,” he said. Among those “great things”, Collins highlighted data science exploration of genomics data and environmental exposure data as areas in which data are plentiful and well-trained data scientists could make significant progress.

The DS-I investment currently totals $58 million and comes from the NIH Common Fund, and is meant to particularly encourage public-private partnerships. This isn’t a traditional NIH grant, Collins said. “We want to see partnerships that go beyond the traditional academic research arena—partnerships that connect up with government, the private sectors, with NGO partners. And we want to be sure this is focused in a way that solves health challenges in Africa in a sustainable way. That probably can’t be done by any single institution.”

Collins encouraged “buy in and investments” from African governments. “We want to move the way in which research is funded from what you might call ‘donorship’ to something I would now call, ‘ownership’,” Collins said, hoping this funding model will build the countries’ own economies and workforces.

Ten Year Plan

The DS-I Africa plan is currently calling for funding applications for at least four awards: an open data science platform and coordinating center; research hubs; research training programs; and ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) research.

The applications can either be direct awards to African institutions or awards to U.S. institutions in partnership with African institutions. Regardless of the applicant organization, the training programs must focus on building institutional capacity at one or more African institutions and train African researchers. Applications are due November 24, 2020 with projects slated to begin in September 2021.

In all four areas, DS-I Africa aims to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing health problems through a robust ecosystem of new partners. Data sciences hubs should be dedicated to research in key health programs. Data science training programs must focus on building institutional capacity at one or more African institutions and train African researchers. Third, the Ethical Legal and Social Implications of data science research in Africa will be explored, particularly around how artificial intelligence and machine learning could be applied to human health. Finally, an Open Data Science Platform & Coordination Center will, Collins says, pull the efforts together in what, he hopes, will be a trans-African network.

African Investment

The symposium announcing the new program included several speakers from organizations across Africa highlighting the importance of data science to Africa. Beatrice Murage, Philips Healthcare Africa, said data science offers the opportunity to “leapfrog” existing technologies and solutions. The African population is generally young, entrepreneurial, and tech-curious, Murage said, but there is a talent and leadership shortage. “We’re hoping to be able to use data science to gap these two challenges,” she said.

In the past, there have been parallel initiatives from academia and industry, Murage said, training efforts that did not necessarily align with industry needs. “By the time [newly trained data scientists] do get to industry, the industry feels that they’re not ready, or they’re not well-suited,” she said. For instance, she hopes training will equip data scientists to have a customer focus so that they can build solutions well-tailored to specific pain points, and that they learn to prioritize business models and solutions that are sustainable and scalable.

But Murage is very hopeful that Africa will be able to build its own talent pool. “We hope as we build the talent inside of Africa, we can get to a place where people outsource to us in terms of data science,” she said. Philips is passionate about strengthening the entire ecosystem, she said, and is particularly concerned about leaderships, economics, and information. “We are always aware that there is no silver bullet. When we are trying to address the challenges in the continent, we need to be able to partner together with other organizations be they academia, be they general corporate, be they government entities, or be they nonprofit organizations.”

Government Buy-In

Collins emphasized that the DS-I Africa program should include significant investments and contributions from African governments so that the programs and outcomes are owned from within. Through his talk, David Moinina Sengeh, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and Chief Innovation Officer for Sierra Leone, argued that African country governments won’t be opposed to investing in data science. Sierra Leone, he said, has already invested heavily in innovation and a national digital strategy.

The Sierra Leone government is committed to using data science for governance, Sengeh said. For example, “Recently we worked with some partners to build models for a 100m by 100m grid population estimate informed by spatial satellite data,” and the most recent household census. Sierra Leone was able to use that data to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sengeh called such efforts “evidence-based policy making.” “It’s quite common for people to make policies based on their gut feelings, or based on history, or based on perception. What we want to do, here in Sierra Leone and in government, is to use evidence-based policies,” he said.