Hope for continent’s research and development future

Africa has the potential to make up for its current backwardness in research and development by adopting a ‘continental vision’, which would enable it to participate in international projects, said leading African physicist Cheikh Mbacké Diop at a conference.

In spite of the sector’s low spending, sparse workforce and inequalities compared with other countries, he claimed the continent’s strengths included quality organisations, an increasing number of high-level scientists and political awareness of the importance of research.

Diop, who currently works at the nuclear physics laboratory in Gif-sur-Yvette in France, was speaking on the place of Africa in global research and development at a conference in honour of his late father, Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, at the University Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, Senegal, reported Sud Quotidien of Dakar.

Mbacké Diop quoted his father – after whom Senegal’s leading University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar is named – who had said: “Africa must choose a scientific and intellectual policy. Africa can again become a centre of scientific initiatives and decisions, instead of believing that it is condemned to remain the appendix, the centre of economic expansion for developed countries.”

He demonstrated that the amounts spent on research globally revealed that Africa devoted very little money to research and development.

With a ratio of one researcher per 10,000 inhabitants, African scientific production was estimated at barely 1% of world output, hardly surprising if the average rate of gross domestic product (GDP) allocated by African states to research was only 0.3%, compared to 2%-3% in rich countries, and with a target of 5% in China.

If South Africa devoted 2% of its GDP to research, that would scarcely equal Japan’s R&D spending 30 years ago, said Diop. It was necessary to compare that with the plan put forward by NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, of US$258 million over five years.

Other figures presented by Diop illustrated the "abysmal depth of inequalities", reported La Presse.

As an example he cited, the University of California – Berkeley, whose budget totalled US$2.2 billion for about 25,000 students and 2,500 researchers, or the University Pierre-et-Marie-Curie in France with 30,000 students and 5,500 teaching and research staff, which had US$500 million. UCAD’s meagre annual budget of US$39 million confirmed the gap that existed between universities.

Other weak points in Africa included lack of planning and a clear scientific strategy, energy instability and chronic under-industrialisation across much of the continent. But the principal bottlenecks were due to the too weak link between the industrial and research worlds, and the lack of durability of projects, know-how and knowledge, said Diop.

Examples from other countries’ state funding of R&D showed that when industry was strong enough to become part of the R&D infrastructure its contribution increased considerably. In emerging countries the same message came through, said Diop: in reality the state supported the financing of research.

Diop also pointed out that the sums allocated to big research institutions in the United States and in France were comparable to the entire state budget of Senegal. On the other hand, Africa was virtually absent from major international research projects whose budgets were valued at billions of dollars.

Diop believed Africa could participate if it had a continental vision for its contribution.

In spite of its backwardness, Africa had great potential to catch up, said Diop. Strong points were its quality organisations; an increasing number of high level scientists and technicians; political awareness of the importance of research; research and training programmes focused on vital regional needs; partnerships in international networks; a large and dynamic young population; the continent’s natural wealth; and backup that could come from the African diaspora.

* This article is drawn from local media. University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original report.