AFRICA: Opening academies to young scientists

An 'old men's club' image, exclusionist rules against younger members and lack of sustainable funding are among the characteristics of science academies in Africa, with more transparent member selection criteria being needed. This was the gist of a debate between students, academics and administrators at a conference of the Regional Initiative in Science and Education, or RISE, in Johannesburg this month.

"Non-involvement of young scientists could be by default or by design," argued Jacqueline Olang, coordinator of the Network of African Science Academies. NASAC is a grouping of 16 national science academies, which works closely with RISE to deliver is programmes.

Olang explained that non-involvement of younger members could be an indication of unwillingness to take care of succession plans within an academy, or failure to recognise the benefits that come from taking on board young, intelligent scientists.

"Gender imbalance is always a problem, but academies can set aside a certain quota for women. I am not saying they should water down the standards," she said.

Olang said the role of science academies had to be redefined, adding that isolation of young scientists without any good reason or acknowledgement of the harm it caused must be addressed.

"At times young scientists are blocked from becoming fellows of academies without considering what value they would bring on board," she said. Kenya-based Olang said such cases showed that science academies need exposure to ideas on how to open up and rid themselves of their outdated and exclusive image.

She also cited independence from government as a challenge that contributes to problems.

For instance when the Tanzanian Academy of Sciences was formed in 2005, as an NGO, it could not attract government funding. Despite good intentions to reach out to younger scientists it was crippled by lack of funds.

Mathew Luhanga, President of the Tanzanian Academy of Sciences, agreed that the academy should enhance its visibility and emphasise the inclusion of eminent female academics.

Currently with 25 members and including one female scientist, the Tanzanian Academy of Sciences has been dogged by lack of infrastructure and sustainable funding. But that has not stopped it offering opportunities to young scientists.

"The academy recognises the excellence of young scientists and young engineers. It can benefit a lot from their intellectual and energetic contributions," said Luhanga, a professor of telecommunications at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Professor John Kabasa of Makerere University in Uganda felt strongly that academies of science in Africa needed to be reformed to engage meaningfully with young scientists.

Kabasa told University World News that older scientists had a responsibility to guide young scientists into the realm of success, adding that there was a need to use the social networks of established scientists to mobilise critical resources and support struggling, upcoming scientists.

"Those few that have stayed on the continent, resisting following the 'Great Trek' to the diaspora, should act as a magnet to attract young scientists," he said.

Kabasa, the director of one of the five RISE member networks - the African Natural Products Network in East Africa - believes young, talented scientists are getting a raw deal from science academies in Africa: "We need to conform to the image of the 21st century. Let's rid the academies of their image as old scientists' clubs," he said.

Kabasa said if the academies could not change, young scientists should organise themselves as a recognisable national bodies and promote the interests of science.

"The tradition of showing off as a member of the academy is over. The criteria of how one is inducted into such a body should be transparent if young scientists are to be part of it. The idea is academies must be inclusive not exclusive," he said.

Kabasa emphasised that the issue should not be about age but excellence.

He said Pakistan started a national academy for young scientists in February this year to share research findings and address specific concerns such as brain drain and lack of career opportunities. The National Academy of Young Scientists, or NAYS, is for scientists aged 40 years and under, and will include young Pakistani scientists working abroad. The academy had 350 young scientists joining in its initial stages.

"The last thing we want is to imitate, because that is the biggest limitation. Let's see what is good from their ideas and improve on it," said Kabasa.

The President of the two-year-old Academy of Sciences of Mozambique, Orlando Quilambo, said they were advised from the outset to consider young scientists on merit as they were the future of the academy. The Mozambican academy has 100 fellows, including young and active scientists.

"We are one of the poorest countries in the world. Our priorities are different; we have to look at basic issues and we can't afford to leave anyone with the ability behind," he told University World News.

Quilambo, who is also Vice-rector at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, said higher education was still weak in Mozambique, a country of 20 million people with 70,000 students in high school. The challenge was to promote science and technology in all spheres of education.

Quilambo said Mozambique had a slight advantage in that most of the generation that had PhDs in the 1980s were still in the country, and they are tapping into their expertise.

He said scientists had formed a group, Councillors of the Academy, whom they consult for advice and wisdom but who are not expected to be as physically active as younger scientists.

Quilambo said the government had asked for expert input on agriculture, water and other basic issues, and that the country needed to be 'all-inclusive' in getting expertise.

Olang warned that though there were good intentions in the formation of another structure within national academies that catered for the needs of young scientists, academies should guard against duplication of efforts.