The Africa Science Leadership Programme

boy showing hand with rubber

The Conversation just published our thoughts on supporting early career research leaders in Africa! Together with Bernard Slippers:

It is widely accepted that the future of scientific development lies in enabling teams made up of people from different countries and disciplines. To do really great work, these often need to be quite big teams.

But training programmes for scientists don’t typically include the types of leadership skills needed to pull this off. The kinds of skills needed to lead projects with diverse, multidisciplinary teams include reflective practice, strategic planning, engagement with a host of stakeholders, effective communication, and the ability to foster a culture of collaboration.

These kinds of skills in research programmes are especially important in the developing world. But it’s also where programmes for their development are in shortest supply.

But there are some glimmers of hope. One of these is the Africa Science Leadership Programme, which was launched in 2015 and is coordinated by Future Africa.

In this programme we are grappling with questions around science leadership, such as how to be more intentional in providing the support base and skills for young African researchers to lead initiatives. We aim to inspire the best talent to enter and stay in the system; to expand investment in their careers; and to simultaneously grow the quality of research outputs.

By training young scientists on the continent to step into leadership roles and guide major projects, we hope to transform the system to more effectively contribute to solving Africa’s challenges.

Capacity gaps

It is clear that the speed and quality of the development of science capacity in Africa depends not only on infrastructure and the technical training of people.

It’s also intimately linked to the quality of people who are able to inspire and lead change.

Countries in Africa lag behind the developed world in terms of scientific capacity and output. And the situation is not improving fast enough. Despite substantial investment over the past decades, developing countries – with the exception of Brazil and China – appear to be losing ground in research. Many of their brightest scholars have been trained around the world. Those who return home battle with poor infrastructure and a lack of support. Others emigrate for good.

Across the continent the bulk of the responsibility of developing science falls to scientists who are currently at an early stage of their career, or sometimes mid-career. Very few are supported or equipped for this task.

Africa’s science capacity needs to expand by more than 10 times to have half the number of scientists per population that the UK has. For some countries it needs to expand by as much as 100 times to reach that level.

It’s a huge challenge to build this capacity given that resources are low, support systems are weak and competition is strong.

One way to fast track the process is to focus on raising leaders. That’s because they have a greater multiplying effect: they are equipped to inspire and lead the transformation of their environment.

A tough journey

It’s worth sharing one of our inaugural fellows’ stories to illustrate how tough the continent can be for young researchers who are expected to step up as leaders.

When Connie Nshemereirwe returned home after her PhD in Education Science in the Netherlands, she resumed work at Uganda Martyrs University. It’s a small and relatively isolated rural university.

She could identify only two women in the whole country who worked in the same domain of educational measurement. Both had moved out of academia. She also lacked the high-performance computing power needed for her analyses. Although talented and highly motivated, she didn’t see a way to move forward: she had no community, no mentors, and no infrastructure.

Through a stroke of luck, in 2015 Dr Nshemereirwe heard of the Africa Science Leadership Programme. As one of its inaugural fellows, she was able to develop her leadership skills and find a network of peers. Importantly, the programme helped to clarify her vision on the role she could play as a scientist in her society.

Today Dr Nshemereirwe is the elected co-chair of the Global Young Academy. With a prominent voice, she is facilitating science capacity development in every region of the world, with an emphasis on Africa.

Our programme and others need to support more people like Dr Nshemereirwe if we’re to develop the science leaders African countries need. So far, we’ve trained 104 researchers from over 60 institutions in 19 countries on the continent. Taking the multiplier effect into account, this means we’ve reached many hundreds of people – but more is needed.

Lessons learned

Over the five rounds of fellows the Africa Science Leadership Programme has worked with, we have seen the value of being intentional about science leadership development. This allows us to refine the visions, grow the networks and develop the skills that young researchers need to transform our world.

Unfortunately there are too few programmes like ours and they cannot service all the continent’s needs. For example, we had more than 650 applications for the 20 spaces available on the programme this year.

Fortunately, our model can be applied in various other contexts: in research programmes, as well as at institutionalregional and globallevels. All the resources we develop and use are available via the programme’s fellows and organisers.

Our hope is that an increased focus on science leadership development will provide support and networks for young African researchers who feel isolated and unsure of how to become the scientific leaders the continent so urgently needs.


Paper in a Day at the ESTSS conference in June

There will be a Paper in a Day workshop at the conference of the European Society for Traumatic Stress Studies! Below is the official announcement.

Needless to say, I can thoroughly recommend it 🙂 This year, it has a thematic focus: utilizing the child trauma data collected in the PACT/R archive.

The archive (officially: Prospective Studies of Acute Child Trauma and Recovery Data Archive) is a major development in our field of research. Paper in a Day will be a great opportunity to get to know and work with it.

Full day on 13 June (9:30 – 16:30) plus pre- and post-meeting assignments

Paper in a Day is designed to stimulate international connections and the exchange of ideas by working on a tangible outcome: a brief paper or commentary for a peer-reviewed journal. This will be an intensive, productive and enjoyable day.

This year, Paper in a Day will make use of a unique research resource in the traumatic stress field – the Prospective studies of Acute Child Trauma and Recovery (PACT/R) Data Archive. Learn more about PACT/R resources and data at This international data archive of child trauma studies currently includes datasets from 32 studies, representing data from more than 5500 children exposed to a single incident trauma, e.g., injury, disaster, interpersonal violence. Throughout the Paper in a Day process, leaders of the PACT/R Archive will be available to participants to answer questions and to approve data requests once research topics / questions are identified.


After registration, participants will choose a topic based on shared interests and availability of relevant PACT/R data. In the weeks prior to the workshop, participants will individually prepare (e.g. read relevant articles, draft sections of the paper). The workshop will include plenary discussions about the topic and the drafted texts, and writing time in subgroups. Following the workshop, the draft will be finalized for submission.


In order to make the event a success, we ask participants to commit to:

  • Prepare in advance of the meeting – dedicate eight hours prior to the workshop.
  • Be present for the entire workshop.
  • Contribute to the final editing and referencing following the workshop.

How to participate

This event is aimed at early career academics who have obtained their PhD after 2014 or who are in the final stages of submission of their PhD. There is no registration fee for this Pre-Conference Workshop. If you would like to participate, please send an email to by 15 april 2019 (seats are limited; first come, first served) with the following information:

1. A short CV listing your publications and main research interests to inform choice of topics. Please also let us know if you have an idea for a research question that could be addressed with PACT/R data to complete a relatively contained empirical paper or commentary.
2. A statement that you commit to the required preparation, attendance, and follow-up activities as described.


They’ll Never Be the Same

There is a new book about children and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), specifically written for parents. The author, the psychiatrist Michael Scheeringa, has an incredible amount of experience in treatment and research with children and young people in the USA.

I got to read a copy of “They’ll Never Be the Same: A Parent’s Guide to PTSD in Youth” provided by the publisher.

While it may not be what one would call a ‘modest’ book, it’s certainly informative. Scheeringa gives parents a helpful overview of what is known about traumatic stress among children in America, how to go about finding and choosing a therapist and what to expect from therapy. Many parents reading it will feel that Scheeringa is on their side. For clinicians and researchers it may be different, but then again they are not the intended audience.

Scheeringa shares multiple interesting insights. One that struck me was about barriers to mental health care. Only a small percentage of children who experience traumatic stress start and complete mental health treatment. What are the barriers for them and their parents? Several factors may be at play:

  • Stigma – seeking treatment is like admitting failure
  • Stoicism / Altruism – thinking that other people are more deserving of limited treatment resources
  • Privacy – talking about trauma seems more painful than having PTSD symptoms
  • Marshmallow children – adults expecting they will bounce back naturally without treatment
  • No clear ‘front door’ to care – it’s hard to find treatment even if you want to

The author’s view is that these factors can’t be the full explanation. He suspects people don’t want mental health care. Mental health is not a sufficiently attractive goal:

“Stigma, stoicism, privacy, marshmallow children, and problems of access with the lack of a ‘front door’ are all good guesses, but they do not quite add up in my mind. All of those guesses seem to have an underlying assumption that people want mental health. Through many of my interactions with patients and potential patients, over the years, I have wondered if that assumption is just plain wrong. What if people are not that interested in mental health?”

“If people truly are not too interested in better mental health, then it will never matter how much we reduce stigma or make access easier. There may be a fundamental issue that the process of asking for help is worse than the problem of living with psychiatric problems. …. (It) seems that many, if not most, trauma victims just don’t want the services bad enough to put up with our business model, or they just don’t want the services at all. Maybe we are trying to engage people the wrong way.”

Is he correct? What do you think?

Last Week in the Lab

“I am a world leader, directing an excellent team of – ” 

“Outstanding is better; it corresponds to a score of 5, while excellent is only a 4.” 

“Oh yes, I forgot. So, I’m a world leader, directing an outstanding team…”

Does this sound like a slightly ridiculous conversation? I hope so 🙂

It is a realistic one during Australian grant writing times though.* Researchers tell each other that they have to write to the scoring criteria, which involves a lot of self-congratulatory language (also, I learned that ‘outstanding’ really is more excellent than ‘excellent’, but that’s another issue).

So what I’m about to write would be shocking on a grant proposal: I lost momentum on something.  Continue reading

The Trauma Recovery Lab has moved.. the University of Melbourne!

‘The enemy,’ as one of my Monash colleagues put it, since these universities are the two big ones within the city. But she said it with a smile and we very much intend to continue collaborating.

My now-colleagues at the Child Health and Wellbeing Program invited the Lab and me to join them. We know each other since a few years and I have always admired their work. Mostly for their a) research into issues that have deep impact on children’s lives, including trauma and migration; b) focus on participatory research, having young people co-design research and co-interpret outcomes; and c) translation of research to practice and policy, by building long-term collaborations. Continue reading