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Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global research rises

Research output in Sub-Saharan Africa has soared over the last 10 years – but it is still not adequate to fuel the region’s fast-growing economies – according to a report published last Tuesday by the World Bank and Elsevier, the global provider of science information. Crucially, it reveals that the region’s share of global research output is growing.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s contribution to global research output increased from 0.44% in 2003 to 0.72% in 2012, suggesting a reversal of the trend reported in 2007 that Africa’s contribution to worldwide research was declining.

Focusing on research output and citation impact, the report, A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research, reveals that while research in the region has doubled over the past 10 years, research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – fields has lagged behind other subject areas.

“Research in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics accounted for only 29% of all research in Sub-Saharan Africa excluding South Africa,” the report notes.

Indeed, the researchers found that the share of STEM research in Sub-Saharan Africa has marginally declined by 0.2% annually since 2002. And in 2012 the quality of STEM research, as measured by relative citation impact, was 32% below the global average.

Research in the region is principally driven by health science research, which has been growing by 4% annually and currently accounts for 45% of all scientific research in the region.

Andreas Blom, the World Bank’s lead economist for African education and principal researcher of the study, said progress in health science research in Africa was the result of the tremendous health challenges the continent faces, improved Africa-relevant health research and well-trained medical doctors and other health workers.

“Most research in Africa focuses on health sciences, as the continent is battling serious diseases like HIV-Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and most recently the Ebola epidemic,” he said.

International collaboration

Blom added that the impressive improvement in African research capacity in the health sciences could also be attributed to persistent support and funding from development partners as well as collaboration with top global universities on health issues.

Some of the top academic institutions identified as key collaborators in health sciences in Sub-Saharan Africa included the universities of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Copenhagen, Liverpool and Oxford, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Other leading collaborators were the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Pasteur Institute.

The study reports that most research in Sub-Saharan Africa – especially in East Africa and Southern Africa outside South Africa – relies heavily on international collaboration and visiting faculty for their research output.

For instance in 2012, 79% of all research in East Africa and 70% in Southern Africa outside South Africa was produced through international collaboration. In contrast, the figure for Vietnam was 68%, for South Africa 45% and for Malaysia 32%.

The crux of the matter is that a large segment of Sub-Saharan Africa’s researchers are non-local and spend less than two years at institutions in the sub-region. “In particular, 39% and 48% of all East and Southern African researchers fall into this category,” says the report.

Using the Scopus abstract and citation database to evaluate trends in research growth in Sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers found that international collaboration was highly instrumental in raising the citation impact of the region’s publications.

Uneven and inadequate growth

Research has been growing more quickly in some regions than others.

West and Central Africa increased its world article share from 0.23% in 2003 to 0.4% in 2012, while Southern Africa minus South Africa barely increased its share from 0.07% to 0.09%.

Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice-president for Africa, points out that with its population of 900,000 million people, accounting for about 12.5% of the world population, it is problematic for Sub-Saharan Africa to produce less than 1% of world research.

“So far, there is a large gap in Africa’s capacity to produce new knowledge in relation to its share of the world population,” said Diop during a meeting titled “A Decade of Development: Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research in Sub-Saharan Africa”, held in Washington DC on 30 September, at which the report was launched.

Addressing the meeting Professor Mary Teuw Niane, Senegal’s minister of higher education and research, said there was an urgent need for African countries to increase funding for research from the current 0.3% of gross domestic product – which is seven times less than what developed countries allocate to research and development.

Quoting UNESCO statistics, Niane said that on average Africa had only 164 researchers per million people while the global average stands at 1,081 researchers per million people.

“The situation is more critical in Sub-Saharan Africa where there are about 80 researchers per million in the population,” said Niane who is also one of the founders of the Partnership for Skills in the Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology – PASET – in Africa.

Need for more collaboration

Noting the importance of research in STEM fields, Dr Dorothy Nyambi, executive vice-president of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, said there was a need to encourage inter-regional cooperation among researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Currently, inter-regional research without South African or international collaborators is almost non-existent in Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Nyambi. Quoting statistics from the report, she said inter-regional cooperation (excluding South Africa) was between 0.9% and 2.9% in Central, East, Southern and West Africa.

At the Washington meeting, most delegates blamed weak STEM research on skewed higher education systems and universities that mainly focused on degrees in the humanities and social sciences.

With less than 25% of students in African universities enrolled in science, engineering and technology programmes, it would take a long time to bridge the scientific divide, delegates noted.

There was an urgent need to increase cutting-edge, industry-driven research capacity so that African economies become more competitive, said Diop.

The meeting recommended expanding doctoral programmes in physical sciences and engineering and called on PASET to hasten the production of 10,000 PhDs annually.

“Just as in the case of health sciences research, African countries can direct consistent resources and support from governments and partners towards postgraduate and doctoral research that addresses specific innovations and engineering challenges,” said Blom.

Towards this goal Claudia Costin, a senior director for education at the World Bank, called for scaling up postgraduate education in Africa through regional collaboration and scholarships – and the World Bank’s African Centres of Excellence initiative.
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