Researchers struggle to establish careers – Report

African universities need to better support early career researchers if they are to build a thriving research environment and boost the continent's number of PhD-qualified staff, according to a joint report launched last week by the British Academy and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Many African science graduates struggle to establish careers after leaving university as they do not receive enough assistance to define their research agendas and develop professionally, says the report, Foundations for the Future: Supporting the early careers of African researchers.

Instead, postdoctorate graduates working as 'junior lecturers' in African universities are often overloaded with teaching and administrative duties, and have to pursue research and writing academic papers in their spare time.

To counter this, the report urges senior academics to encourage research by younger colleagues and to mentor them on collaborations, publishing and preparing funding applications.

It is essential that science be recognised as an "intergenerational endeavour", the report's author, Jonathan Harle, told http://SciDev.Net.

"One thing which is absolutely critical is…trying to find ways in which senior academics can be encouraged, enabled and incentivised to nurture [the early career researchers]," he said.

The report builds on the Nairobi Process, a series of actions and initiatives developed to improve UK-Africa research collaborations in the humanities and social sciences, which is being coordinated by the British Academy and the Association of Commonwealth Universities.

Its recommendations are the product of consultations with African and British academics across a wide range of fields, said Graham Furniss, chair of the British Academy's Africa Panel.

"The analysis and the mechanisms proposed are, we think, very relevant to STEM [science, technology, engineering and medicine] subjects and we would welcome further discussion on how the UK could strengthen support across the board to early career scholars," he said.

Marta Tufet, international activities advisor at the Wellcome Trust, called for the active involvement of vice-chancellors and rectors in the creation of better mentoring programmes in Africa.

She warned that without the support of university leaders to enable researchers to carry out their own work, little progress could be expected.

Kenyan Chege Githiora, from the African Studies Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the United Kingdom, welcomed the report but told http://SciDev.Net that capacity-building of university administrators and librarians is equally important.

"These are the people who actually keep the universities running, so if you don't have their support you cannot do your research," Githiora said. "My experience with [African universities] is that a lot of hindrances young African scholars encounter have to do with university administration and governance."

* This article, “African researchers 'struggle' to establish careers”, first appeared on 28 February in http://SciDev.Net, the online publication reporting on science, technology and the developing world.