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Science policy foiled by institutional capacity – Report

Despite the fact that two-thirds of African countries have policies and strategies in place for science, technology and innovation, the capacity of the continent’s higher education institutions and associated research centres to implement them remains very low.

This is a key message of the 2017 Africa Capacity Report entitled "Building Capacity for STI for Africa's Transformation", as outlined in a 24 February press report published by Zimbabwe's newspaper The Herald.

Prepared by the Zimbabwe-based African Capacity Building Foundation, or ACBF, the Africa Capacity Report will be officially published in the Senegalese capital Dakar on 28 March as part of the African Union Commission/United Nations Economic Commission for Africa conference of ministers meeting.

Socio-economic growth

As a result of low numbers of skilled staff, limited expertise, financial resources, infrastructural capabilities and equipment, most African countries have underdeveloped STI – science, technology and innovation – institutions and fail to effectively generate and deploy knowledge and technological innovations for socio-economic growth, the Africa Capacity Report notes.

The capacity lag in STI is linked to the investment priorities of African countries, which must convert political commitments into practical programmes for STI-based development, it said.

For example, the current average of African spending on research and development stands at about 0.5% of gross domestic product or GDP. This is below the 1% of GDP pledged by states in 1980, and again in 2005, according to an ACBF statement released in January.

Africa accounts for about 5% of global GDP but it is responsible for only 1.3% of global R&D expenditure.

Skills gaps

The Africa Capacity Report findings are in line with those of the ACBF Strategy for 2017–2021 which indicates that findings on the capacities needed to implement the African Union’s Agenda 2063 highlight serious gaps in critical technical skills to implement the Agenda’s first 10-year plan, including a shortage of as many as 4.3 million engineers and 1.6 million agricultural scientists and researchers.

The figures sound daunting, and while progress might be perceived as slow or limited, there is at least progress, according to commentators.

"You have to visit African scientific meetings to get a feel for the enthusiasm, the energy, the hope and the optimism of young African scientists to glimpse what the future holds," Abdallah Daar told University World News.

Daar is a member of the Independent Strategic and Scientific Advisory Board of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa or AESA, an initiative of the African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development agency, established to promote the development of Africa’s research leadership, scientific excellence and innovation.

A clear trajectory

"Changing the face of scientific capacity in Africa will take a little more time for all strategies and initiatives to be translated into developmental impact, but the trajectory is very clear," Daar said.

However, the report warns that Africa risks being “left behind in the race towards inclusive globalisation if countries don't build STI capacities".

It recommends that African countries re-commit to reaching the 1% GDP target for R&D and even take it further – to around 3%.

The Africa Capacity Report highlights several African countries which had practical success stories – based on strategies and initiatives – that could be adapted to build STI institutions in other countries and be used for socio-economic transformation.

As many as 91% of the 44 African countries surveyed in the Africa Capacity Report indicated that training was a high or very high priority in STI. Other areas that were also rated as higher or very high priority included information and communications technology, infrastructure, patent rights and trademarks, investment, production or publication of scientific papers, policy or strategy, and regulation or laws, the statement said.

More time and effort

What Africa needs is more time and effort, according to Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University in the United States and a member of the presidential advisory council that advises Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

"Excellent education and superb research cannot be attained easily or fast as [these are] the basics of development and require a concerted and maintained effort over decades," he told University World News.

"The Africa Capacity Report's recommendations for building STI capabilities are not for the faint-hearted or for those who wish to show progress in a year or two. It is for leaders who believe in their people and can talk to them honestly and clearly.

"It might take a decade to properly train teachers, while allocating 2%, or at least 1%, of the GDP, allocated for scientific research. But the result would uplift the nation, and place its population on the road to greatness among nations."

"This is not a theory; it is what the Asian Tiger nations have all done in the best way," El-Baz said.
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