Nothing was more fitting than identifying young and women scientists from Africa as the potential ‘next Einstein’ at the Global Gathering 2016 of the Next Einstein Forum. The forum in Senegal of 800 people from more than 100 countries is the first of a series that will showcase Africa’s top emerging scientists and connect them across the continent and the world.
Armed with zeal, passion and intellect, young and women researchers at the gathering – many of them fellows and ambassadors of the Next Einstein Forum or NEF – reflected a small portion of the abundant talent in Africa that is known to exist but has not yet been fully harnessed.
Indeed, 40% of Next Einstein Forum fellows (young scientists) are women, and people under 42 years old comprised more than half of the 800 participants at the conference, which was held from 8-10 March at the Abdou Diouf International Conference Centre in Dakar under the patronage of Senegal’s President Macky Sall.
“We need to carry on the efforts so that Africa can catch up with the rest of the world in science. The ‘next Einstein’ can be an African man or an African woman,” said Sall.
Launched in 2013, the NEF is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences or AIMS in partnership with Germany’s Robert Bosch Stiftung, and describes itself as “a platform that brings together leading thinkers in science, policy, industry and civil society in Africa to leverage science to solve global challenges”.
Next Einstein Forum
“‘Next Einstein’ is not just another conversation about science, it’s a solution- and result-driven forum with concrete and tangible objectives,” said Thierry Zomahoun, chief executive officer of AIMS and chair of the Next Einstein Forum, at the opening ceremony.
“It’s a global forum that seeks to bring together young African scientists and to enhance collaboration among them.” The forum, he added, also aimed to create a global platform for cooperation between African scientists and the rest of the world. “Scientists from Africa are coming together to discuss science and its place in the transformation of Africa.”
Zomahoun said the global forum, which will be held every two years, sought to build an African agenda around science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while creating a pan-African platform for young scientists to promote and facilitate science and innovation.
In the process, the gap between science and industry could be bridged as Africa sets itself up as the next hub for global science. “We want to produce a generation of African scientists who will challenge the likes of Einstein, Marie Curie and innovators like Steve Jobs.”
Opening the forum on 8 March – International Women’s Day – sent a strong signal to the international science community that it was time to value the contribution of women, Zomahoun said.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame pointed out that the industrial revolution had largely passed Africa by. The continent now needed to keep pace with the rest of the world, to avoid being left behind in today’s technological advances.
“This starts with a change in our mindset. We really cannot be satisfied with just ending poverty. Our aim is shared and sustainable prosperity. And the key to that is science and innovation bound by research,” he said.
Kagame said technology and skills were the lifeblood of economic growth and competitiveness, and investments in the necessary education and infrastructure – including broadband – must continue.
The problem was not only insufficient numbers of science and technology professionals being produced – but too often those produced wasted their talents in unconducive environments.
“We do not invest enough in research and development. The share of higher education students enrolled in science and engineering is too low,” he said.
Kagame was concerned that women comprised less than one third of researchers and even fewer scientists and engineers. “Women are at least half of our talent pool, and progress is impossible without their full participation at every level.”
He said that in national and regional institutions there were plans to address all of these issues – but intent often came up short on implementation and collaboration.
The ‘Africa rising’ game changer
Flavia Schlegel, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO, said a recent science report had indicated that Africa was experiencing a period of unprecedented growth, an increasing policy focus on science, technology and industry, and emerging examples of good practice in this area.
This rapid development had been a game changer. “The local landscape is shifting and stimulating enquiry and innovation in all corners of the continent as African nations seek to redefine themselves in this new age as global hubs for science and technology,” she said.
Schlegel was particularly heartened by presentations from young scientists at the conference, as an indication of the need to be more inclusive when setting up science policies aimed at the young generation and women in science.
“This is particularly relevant for Sub-Saharan Africa, where figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that on average women make up less than 34% of scientific researchers.”
It was not that African women were not interested in scientific careers or were less able in scientific fields than men, Schlegel argued. The problem lay in entrenched bias that prevented women from pursuing careers in scientific domains and accounted for fewer women being enrolled at top levels of scientific higher education.
“The decision we take today and resources we allocate to building capacity will pay dividends for the next generations of African scientists.”
Brain drain conundrum
The Global Gathering might have been an exciting step forward for science in Africa, but as one of its funders advised, more must be done if the continent is to escape an old cycle of problems.
AIMS CEO Thierry Zomahoun told the gathering that “there are more African engineers working in the United States than in Africa”.
“Organising a platform for scientific exchange is one thing. It will not stop the brain drain from Africa,” said Joachim Rogall, executive director of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, the Germany-based funder of the forum.
“We all know about the improvement of governance in African countries. Improving working conditions at African universities and scientific institutions, and fighting corruption and mismanagement, will be a way to stop the brain drain and to bring back the brightest people from Africa working abroad, and produce the next Einstein,” Rogall said.
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