Scientific trend analysis can help inform investment

Last month, Thomson Reuters released a report identifying 100 'front lines' in research. These are topics seeing rapid growth in publications and citations – a measure of scientific activity and importance. The list contains several topics relevant to Africa, such as assessments of maternal and child health, ocean acidification and the impact of climate change on food crops.

This is good news for African researchers working in these fields, as it might increase the international visibility of – and funding for – their work. But it also highlights important commonalities between the global research agenda and African priorities and challenges.

In Africa, we sometimes believe that global curiosity-driven research – studies driven by researchers' inquisitiveness rather than political or strategic directives – is at odds with the continent's development priorities.

Many articles – and I've written some of them – argue that Africa's dependence on international research funding means its own priorities are overlooked.

While there may be a degree of truth to such beliefs, it has led to a culture of isolation among some African science policy-makers. These people speak of wresting the scientific agenda away from international trends.

They long for the 'domestication' of science in Africa, arguing that internationally driven science – aiming for publication in top journals and Nobel prizes rather than to solve real-life problems – will not improve the lives of ordinary Africans.

False dichotomy

I have always felt wary of this 'Africanising' ideology for science and innovation. Research is inherently collaborative, and is becoming more so, bridging national and cultural boundaries.

Making African scientists turn away from these international collaborations, and away from the recognition of their peers in other countries, will only make Africa's best scientists leave for greener pastures.

If Western science values are not contributing to making the developing world a better place to live, I believe the fault does not lie with developing country scientists being lured away from national challenges by international funding priorities.

Rather, it is the failure of local governments, businesses and development efforts to help drive the international science agenda by putting their own resources into relevant research areas.

These governments also have a responsibility to take the new knowledge into account, turning it into locally applicable solutions that can then be implemented on the ground.

Led from outside

The Thomson Reuters report is significant because it highlights several trends that argue against the false dichotomy of 'African' and 'international' science. It shows that curiosity-driven international research can tackle subjects of relevance to developing regions.

But even where research trends are relevant to African problems, the main actors are, still, not African.

An example of this is 'polymer solar cells' – one of the trendy research areas identified by Thomson Reuters.

Rather than using silicon-based technology, polymer solar cells convert sunlight to electricity using organic polymers. This technology is cheap, durable and environmentally friendly, and could help bring electricity to remote rural areas in developing countries.

The technology has been pursued by a project called the Lighting Africa initiative. This joint project between the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank aims to provide electricity to areas not reached by the national grid.

But the key researchers in the field are not African. They are Danish, led by Frederik Krebs of the Technical University of Denmark.

And Australians dominate another trendy subject of high relevance to Africa: ocean acidification caused by burning fossil fuels. This threatens coral reefs in tropical seas with unknown, but potentially significant, effects on fishing and tourism.

Growing influence

However, it is not just countries with established research capacity that drive the trendy subjects. China and South Korea are big producers in the fashionable subject of how climate change will affect food crops.

This shows that, as a country's scientific standing grows, it gets a stronger say over the direction of global research. This is something that African policy-makers should take into account before deciding that international and African research priorities are at odds.

It is easy to blame Western scientific values for science failing to have an impact in developing countries. It is also easy to blame developing country scientists for being blinded by the 'publish or perish' imperative, and for failing to make sure their research meets local needs.

But it is difficult to tackle the real challenges: boosting local support for research and making sure to link this with wider development efforts.

In a scenario where resources are limited, such as in most developing countries, it might be hard to decide where to target such investments. However, scientific trend analyses – such as the one provided by Thomson Reuters – can help policy-makers identify areas where cutting-edge science and development priorities collide.

These are likely to be crucial areas where their investments might make the most difference.

Firstly, to science, by giving national researchers a fair chance to get into an internationally growing field. But it can also make a difference to development, as funding for technology adaptation and engineering skills can help a country make use of fresh technologies in the field.

* This article by Linda Nordling, “Research topic trends are useful for Africa”, was first published on 10 May by It is reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.