AFRICA: Call to strengthen research for development

The World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha called for massive investment in university research for sustainable development in Africa. Delegates from across the world agreed that research taking place in African universities should be linked to development-related issues such as biotechnology, to tackle food security problems on the continent.

The conference held a special session on "Science as a Force for Change in Africa", attended by around 1,000 science journalists, development consultants and education administrators.

Panelists presented views on the role of scientific research in enabling Africans to resolve the continent's many challenges from within.

They were unanimous in arguing that knowledge (science, research and education) was key to solving Africa's problems and that higher education systems needed to be strengthened across the continent as "universities are the place where knowledge is created".

Ochieng Ogodo (pictured), Africa Editor of the online publication SciDev.Net, told the session that more research "should come out of laboratories and journals to serve Africa in reality and on ground, by focusing attention on diseases, malnutrition, food insecurity and water stress."

Later, he told University World News: "We strongly believe that science is the answer to Africa's development-related problems.

"University research in this part of the world should be supported because governments in Africa lack resources, and private universities are profit-oriented and therefore attach less importance to development-oriented research efforts."

Ogodo said African countries had seriously neglected research funding. "At the time of budgets other social issues attract the attention of governments. They do not realise that sustainable development is only possible by strengthening the research base."

Barry Green, of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in South Africa, told the conference that it was contributing to development by training postgraduate students who went on to become academics, research administrators, civil servants and development managers. AIMS is a partnership of six universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Universite de Paris Sud X1.

Suzanne Corbeil, from Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, called on the non-government sector to step up its support for community-oriented scientific research in universities.

The delegates agreed that universities could play a vital role in boosting agricultural research with specific attention to local crops and their diseases, in order to devise strategies for enhanced production to meet local food needs.

Soil research could be undertaken, to help turn arid land into arable land. African dry lands were also discussed during another session on the water and food nexus, in which speakers highlighted the role of science and technology in tackling the sustainable use of land.

The delegates held the same views in yet another session that discussed a report by Academy of Science for South Africa on the production of PhDs, published last year.

Participants said that doctoral education should aim to prepare researchers oriented to solving local problems, and that improved employment opportunities and remuneration should be provided to PhD graduates to encourage them to remain in the region.

While the conference agreed that science could drive Africa's development, it also found a real need to properly communicate research being conducted in universities.

If its results were properly communicated, research might attract more funding "and prove instrumental in fulfilling specific development needs," said Alaa-l-Ibrahim of the American University in Cairo.

Barry Green agreed, and told University World News: "Some good research is taking place in African universities but higher education authorities should focus attention on making good use of it. There is lack of follow-up on research projects and thus money spent on research goes wasted. Research should be linked to development projects."