Top Namibian scientist lands global geoscience post

Professor Benjamin Mapani from the University of Namibia has been appointed the first African to chair the influential Commission on Geoscience for Environmental Management, or GEM, of the International Union of Geological Sciences, or IUGS.

Established in the 1950s, the IUGS brings together 118 countries from all over the world. GEM’s mandate is to find solutions to environmental problems caused by anthropogenic contamination. Considered to be the most powerful geological body in the world, it wields immense academic clout in that it approves policies that bring about regulations, standards and norms in the geological world.

Low visibility of African scientists

Speaking exclusively to University World News, Mapani, who is also secretary general of the Geological Society of Africa, bemoaned the apparent low visibility and involvement of the continent’s scientists in overcoming challenges facing Africa.

His view is that there is a disconnection between scientists and lawmakers.

“I think our politicians have been doing a good job at the United Nations but from academia, which I prefer to call the quiet, unseen but potentially effective side, African scientists have not been very active,” he said.

He said while scientists were by nature politically shy, the problem of poor collaboration between scientists and lawmakers was on both sides.

“In most cases the politicians do not really understand the significance of what we are doing; how it can add value to national development.”

He called for sufficient funding to be given to African universities for research as well as for collaborative forums between politicians and academics. There is also a need, he said, for governments to strengthen the capacity of their universities to produce more postgraduate students who can perpetuate the cycle of knowledge production.

“It is not by accident that countries that include the United States of America, Germany, Japan, Britain and now China are… at the forefront in development. It has been achieved through funding and collaboration.”

Available data shows that only about five percent of African scientists actively participate in global knowledge production. A cursory look at some top peer-reviewed journals of the world such as Geology, Nature and Science shows that articles by African scientists are conspicuously few.

An illustrious profile

Mapani has an illustrious academic and professional profile. After obtaining an honours degree from the University of Zambia, and a stint at the Geological Survey of Zambia, he pursued an MSc equivalent at the Ecole Nationale Supérieur de Géologie in France. He later obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne, Australia.

He first taught at the University of Zambia, then helped to build the masters programme in exploration geology at the University of Zimbabwe. He left Zimbabwe in 2003 to join the University of Namibia.

Mapani has led a number of International Geological Correlation Program (IGCP) projects sponsored by UNESCO and the Swedish development agency SIDA. The projects include work on groundwater management for six cities in the Southern African Development Community; environmental effects of mine waste and its effects on humans; and the impact of mine dumps on water, soils and human health.

In Namibia Mapani is undertaking research in the Naukluft Mountains on groundwater assessment and the impact of climate change on groundwater levels in aquifers, together with an international team of experts.

He has published more than 40 papers in international journals and has received several awards including the Commonwealth Scholarship Fund. He has served as guest editor on the journal Physics and Chemistry of the Earth and is a reviewer for several journals.

Prior to his latest election, Mapani was the Africa representative on the IUGS for four years, during which time he helped to create awareness among African governments, whose citizens are involved in small-scale gold mining, of the consequences of using mercury in the mining process. Evidence has shown that inhaling or ingesting mercury affects male sperm, which can lead to birth defects.

Tasks as chair of GEM

He described his election as “an honour and proof that some people have recognised my contribution.”

As the new chair of GEM, his work is cut out for him. The United Nations Environment Programme has asked GEM to formulate a policy on global mercury reduction. Mapani said he would ensure also that the programme drawn up by the IUGS up to 2016 is implemented.