A new paradigm for Central Africa – Building a permanent research and training facility in one of the world’s most long-suffering regions

By Jack Feuer
Originally published in the UCLA College Report

THERE IS ONLY A LIMITED PUBLIC HEALTH INFRASTRUCTURE in the region, and it is ill-equipped to address crippling pandemics such as HIV/AIDS. Moreover, many African researchers, the best and brightest minds on the continent, give up trying to conduct research in such a disadvantaged environment, or they leave the region permanently for careers in the developed world. In fact, it is estimated that only 20 percent of African scientists and scholars who study in the U.S. and Europe return to their native countries.

But an ambitious UCLA-led effort is underway to combat these grand challenges in Cameroon, the geographic and cultural “hinge” between Western and Central Africa. Led by Thomas Smith, UCLA professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and director of the UCLA Center for Tropical Research, the UCLA International Research and Training Center (IRTC) in Yaoundé, Cameroon, is the first permanent facility in the Congo Basin for visiting and native scholars and scientists. It is proving to be a game-changer for human health, the environment, higher education and development in the region.

The IRTC is booming, doubling in size since it began in 2010. The center offers a fully equipped research facility that also serves as a base for international researchers to establish productive long-term collaborations with African researchers and to train a new generation of experts.

“We need to reinvent how we do development in these countries,” said Smith. “We need to build centers of excellence to support academicians and scientists, something integrative and permanent.”

The UCLA experts are working with a consortium of highly experienced partners to secure funding for a greatly expanded vision of the IRTC to be called the Center for Integrative Development— Cameroon (CID). The CID will leverage, expand and amplify the IRTC to create a sustained and well-supplied source of training, equipment and expertise serving Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo. It will be a test bed for novel development technologies and catalyzing and scaling up innovations.

The partnership includes the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, a global leader in finding solutions for hunger, malnutrition and poverty; the Central and West African division of the World Agroforestry Centre, which is dedicated to improving food security and increased resources for energy, sustainable agriculture and ecosystem services; Le Centre Pasteur du Cameroun, a major contributor for more than 60 years to the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases in Cameroon through research,teaching and public health initiatives; and Global Green Carbon Corporation, whose innovative projects transform communities through smart conservation and carbon-financed initiatives linking profitability with sustainability.

The CID will expand existing facilities in Yaoundé to create a Research and Education Park that will provide distance learning for U.S. and African students, data repositories, a technology and innovation incubator, a remote-sensing research and training lab, a molecular genetics and disease screening lab, a lodging and conference center and a logistics office to assist international participants and help partner them with local researchers. Already, the center is helping to train UCLA medical students in global health. Workshops sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and Sandia Labs (funded by the government) have been held through the IRTC/CID, and others are in the planning stages with NSF. The center recently held its first distance learning course, in environmental health, led by Hilary Godwin, professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielder School of Public Health. UCLA students and Cameroonian students took the course in real time. And this summer, a UCLA Studies Abroad course will be held at the facility.

In addition, the center has been awarded a $5 million Partnerships for International Research and Education grant from the National Science Foundation for research and training, and additional proposals are in the pipeline. The project is also generating considerable interest from foundations and corporations who wish to partner with the effort.

The challenges facing Central Africa are daunting and increasing. “It’s not one project. It’s not one issue,” said Smith. “And there are problems we don’t even know yet.” Yet solutions can and are being found. The IRTC’s expansion into the CID will give the region even more resources to meet those challenges and keep African experts at home, working on solutions in their home countries. “We are going to build it,” Smith said. “All the stars are aligned.”