AFRICA: Research network project promotes brain gain

The circulation of academics, researchers and the highly skilled across boundaries - a very old phenomenon - has come to the fore in recent times, either called 'brain drain' when emphasising its most negative causes and consequences for academics' countries of origin, or 'brain circulation' which hints at multi-directional flows.

While return migration is not always practical, or desired, it is very common for expatriates to retain strong links with their country of origin. Indeed, migrants who are successfully integrated into the working world of a receiving country often have a strong commitment to contribute to home country development.

This is easily illustrated by remittances to developing countries: in many cases private flows of money originating from expatriates surpass international aid or foreign investment.

Highly skilled migrants form part of a global knowledge society, which offers strong rewards for innovation. Higher education institutions have an important role to play in this respect. Not only are they spaces for knowledge transmission, they also produce original research, leading to scientific and technological innovation.

In Africa we are witnessing very interesting developments, enabled by a conjunction of global as well as local factors: the growing importance of collaboration in research activities, the development of communication tools that lower barriers to collaboration across borders and continents, and a state-of-the-art network infrastructure from coast to coast.

Many pieces are coming together, and the UNESCO-HP Brain Gain Initiative proposes to capitalise early on this window of opportunity by supporting higher education institutions so that they can further develop their research capacity and improve research cooperation on practical, locally relevant issues, both among participants (South-South) and with expatriates.

The initiative operates as a partnership between UNESCO and Hewlett-Packard, on the one hand, and with higher education and research institutions throughout Africa and the Arab states on the other. Technology has a key role to play, with a strong emphasis placed on distributed/grid computing as the ideal means to pool resources, encourage cooperation and diminish geographical distances within and beyond the continent.

Joining the initiative involves a few straightforward steps, aimed at fostering both ownership and sustainability. Candidate institutions are first nominated by the ministry responsible for higher education. They are then invited to make a proposal for a research or training project addressing their interests and local priorities, which will be implemented jointly with expatriates, academics and researchers. Projects are selected through a competitive process.

Those in the current phase cover a broad range of topics, including environment (climate change, hydrology, pollution, real-time monitoring and alert systems), biology, databases, image processing, medical research, nanotechnology, physics, e-learning and computer science.

All participants benefit from IT equipment grants and from operational funds to help them to implement their project. They also take part in training sessions and are presented with networking opportunities. The equipment grant (which covers servers and workstations) and training and operational funds allow participants to modernise their infrastructure, familiarise themselves with grid computing and conduct a research project where this knowledge is immediately applied. This creates an enabling environment for collaborative work.

Networking opportunities foster interactions with experts in the region and beyond and make possible effective research collaboration independent of geographical location. Networking should also enable a core group of experts to act as champions of the initiative to establish an African e-infrastructure and raise awareness of this among national policy- and decision-makers.

It is perhaps not well known that the first Sub-Saharan node connected to EGEE (a pilot to the experimental European Grid Infrastructure) was the computing centre at Université Cheikh Anta Diop (UCAD) in Senegal, a participant in the Brain Gain Initiative.

The initiative itself deserves only a minimum of credit for this achievement, since the hard work is always conducted at the institutional level, and UCAD leveraged additional support sources, notably from the Sharing Knowledge Foundation as well as the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Is it a success story?

Yes, challenges were overcome, collaborations established, and scientists and grid administrators were trained, laying the foundation for further development. As a direct result, researchers at the university could leverage very substantial computing power for the first time. However, the node subsequently disappeared from the databases that keep track of which resources are online and available at any given time.

The problem, we have since learned, was with the reliability of electric supply to a specific piece of network equipment. In a production setting, grid computing requires more or less uninterrupted availability. Failing that, sites lose their certification, meaning they can no longer take part in the global infrastructure.

This raised some fundamental questions: was this project operating at the vanguard and was it simply too far ahead of its time, given the fragile nature of the supporting infrastructure? Or was the technology itself too fragile to cope with the demands made upon it in this particular environment?

Time, of course, is of the essence in this context. Waiting for the perfect supporting infrastructure to fall into place is a luxury that Africa can ill afford. On a global map of e-infrastructure, Africa stands out as the only predominantly blank space. But that picture could change rapidly if the opportunity is seized.

The demand for better infrastructure is there, the fruits of cooperation with expatriates are within reach, and the fibre-optic cables are coming now. Academics and researchers should be prepared, ready to leverage the new opportunities when their institutions come to enjoy reliable, affordable, abundant bandwidth.

While the Brain Gain Initiative focuses on content, on what will be inside the pipes, other actors such as AfricaConnect, UbuntuNet and WACREN, are actively supporting these high-speed networks. Their success will open the way for the future.

There is no doubt that it is a challenge to operate sensitive equipment and services under difficult conditions. Energy infrastructure issues, in particular, will not be solved overnight.

But ways of enhancing reliability are available and in use where it matters, making this a problem of short-term priorities: the resource has to prove itself valuable enough and quickly enough for project coordinators to be able to convince decision-makers to support the next steps.

In a way, this pretty much sums up the future resource needs of the initiative, as its current phase comes to an end in early 2012. The nodes of an e-infrastructure mutually reinforce and rely on each other, creating a regional asset. Ideally, they should not be bound by the limits of a specific project, and a sufficient number of them should be able to secure the resources they need to maintain momentum. Their success will foster similar developments, ultimately consolidating and sustaining the network.

Another challenge is training. Academics and researchers are often not familiar with grid computing and it is extremely valuable to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to have experience of it.

A few weeks ago, delegates from all participating institutions took part in an advanced training session, jointly organised by the initiative, the South African grid infrastructure and the Meraka Institute of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Projects discussed their achievements and the challenges they face, and opportunities were seized to forge new partnerships.

Encouraging reports are already coming in that augur well for the future well-being of participant projects: a few of them which are at a more advanced stage of implementation are already extending support to their colleagues abroad.

Together with research cooperation with African expatriate academics in North America and Europe, we are witnessing the birth of new South-South research partnerships, involving institutions based in several regions of Africa and the Arab States.

* Marc Bellon and Liliana are Brain Gain project managers and assistant programme specialists in the Division of Higher Education at UNESCO, Paris.