African researchers produce only 1.8% of the world's total scholarly publications - half as many as Latin America and substantially less than India - according to a forthcoming article in the journal Scientometrics on the state of science and technology across the continent. South Africa and Egypt produced half of all Africa's internationally recognised publications between 2000 and 2004, while 88% of inventive activity was concentrated in South Africa.
Africa performed even worse in terms of inventions, according to the Scientometrics article. Its countries produced only 633 patents awarded by the US Patents and Trademarks Office during the five years - less than one per 1,000 inventions protected in the world's largest economy.
The continent is lagging substantially behind the rest of the world in science, technology and innovation which, as numerous development reports have argued, underpin the Millennium Development Goals and are prerequisites for development. The article recommends that African governments pay more attention to developing national research systems.
"The State of Science and Technology in Africa (2000-2004): A scientometric assessment", reports on science and technology in Africa on the basis of two indicators: the numbers of research publications by and patents awarded to African researchers. Its authors are Anastassios Pouris, of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, and Anthipi Pouris, of South Africa's National Research Foundation.
"Monitoring and evaluating the various facets of the scientific enterprise is a necessary and integral part of science policy," they say. "Rising costs of research and development and competing disciplinary claims for financial resources require intelligent allocation of resources, which presupposes knowledge of the activities and performance of the innovation system."
The importance of indicators was recognised by the first Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the development arm of the EU-style African Union. The Nepad Declaration of 2003 committed to "develop and adopt common sets of indicators to benchmark our national and regional systems of innovation".
But Africa remains the only continent without an organisation responsible for promoting and assisting in the development of indicators and with "scant scientometric coverage in the open literature". The writers say this situation is the result of "lack of scientometric expertise, disinterested science authorities and lack of financial resources".
Pouris and Pouris used two common scientometric indicators - research publications (which measure research activity) and awarded patents (technological activity) - as they say these were easily and reliably available and did not require expertise in Africa.
Research publications are also proxies for scientific manpower, which is useful for African countries lacking mechanisms to monitor science, technology and innovation. The databases of the Institute for Scientific Information were probed, as well as patents awarded by the US Patents and Trademarks Office.
The investigation revealed that Africa produced 68,945 publications over the 2000-2004 period, or 1.8% of the world's publications. By comparison, the European Union generated 38.8% of publications, the US 33.6%, China 4.7%, Latin America 3.5%, India 2.4% and other countries 15.2%.
Within Africa, South Africa produced 20,762 publications or 30% of the total and Egypt 13,942 or 20%. This was just over half of all African publications, while the top eight countries - including Morocco (5,463), Nigeria (4,040), Tunisia (3,930), Kenya (3,231), Algeria (2,766) and Tanzania (1,368) - produced 80% of the continent's publications.
The two researchers also looked at publications by science discipline. Assuming that a country needs around 300 publications over a five-year period to be considered as having minimal expertise in the field - that is, some 50 to 60 publishing researchers - they say it was apparent the majority of African countries are well below the set standards.
Researchers were most active in the sciences of clinical medicine (12,998 publications), plant and animal studies (8,546) and chemistry (8,317). South Africa dominated the first two disciplines and Egypt was most active in chemistry. South Africa produced more than 70% of space science and psychology research and more than half in education, economic sciences and neuro-sciences. Egypt produced 40% of research in chemistry, materials science, and engineering. Nigeria was the major producer of agricultural research (18.9%).
In clinical medicine, 12 countries produced more than 300 publications over the five years: South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Senegal and Malawi. And in four other disciplines - chemistry, physics, engineering, and plant and animal sciences - there were five countries (including South Africa, Egypt and Morocco) that exceeded this 'minimal expertise' threshold.
In ecology, a discipline necessary for environmentally friendly and sustainable development, only four countries - South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya - produced 300 or more publications. But land and primary resources (agriculture, ecology, geosciences, and plant and animal sciences) occupied 26.4% of the research in Africa while the figures for the US and India were 13.5% and 19.5% respectively - an over-emphasis, the authors believe.
"The challenge appears to be the size of the research system and not disciplinary adjustments," they contend.
Looking into Africa's level of inventiveness, Pouris and Pouris found the US Patents and Trademarks Office awarded 633 patents to African researchers during 2000-2004, against more than 817,000 patents achieved by the rest of the world. So Africa produced less than one per 1,000 inventions. Of the 633 patents, 557 (88%) were produced by South Africa.
Interestingly, while Africa generated 1.8% of the world's knowledge, it produced less than 0.1% of the world's inventions - a phenomenon that Pouris and Pouris speculate could be partly attributable to international collaboration:
"International donors and collaborators may be prepared to work with African colleagues when the output will be in the public domain, but may refrain to do so when the output of the collaboration is proprietary knowledge. Innovation (patent) take-off may require a minimum capability threshold in research; high costs of patenting in the US and Europe and isolationism (the 'we don't need to' syndrome) may be additional factors."
They argue that Africa's main concern should be how to develop research capacity across the board, rather than in particular disciplines: "We suggest that African countries have to do two things simultaneously if they wish to do so. More research-trained students have to be graduated and graduates have to be enticed to remain in their countries.
"Finally we suggest it is time that the African continent joins the rest of the world through the production of national and continental science and technology indicators reports." These should be produced regularly and should include additional indicators (for example, educational statistics) monitoring progress in science and technology.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters