Five nations pledge support for science, engineering

Five African countries - Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda - have committed to invest more in science, technology and engineering education to accelerate progress towards knowledge-based societies within a generation. Their pledge last Thursday followed a high-level forum in Kigali co-hosted by the World Bank and Rwandan government.

Addressing the forum themed "Accelerating Africa's Aspirations", Rwandan President Paul Kagame urged countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to mobilise resources for capacity building in science and technology, in pursuit of socio-economic development.

"Our collective commitment to Africa's transformation must be followed by action to drive innovation for the development of our people and our continent," said Kagame.

In his keynote address Makhtar Diop, the World Bank's vice president for Africa, challenged countries to expand knowledge and expertise in science by doubling the share of students graduating from universities with degrees in scientific fields by 2025.

"If Sub-Saharan Africa is to develop there is urgent need to increase the number of students in science, technology and engineering as well as improving the quality of learning and research in universities," said Diop.

Poor achievement

According to the World Bank, millions of engineers are needed in Sub-Saharan Africa just to achieve a single Millennium Development Goal - that of access to safe water and improved sanitation.

"Currently, there is a serious shortage of engineers, scientists, technicians and doctors in nearly all of Sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries," said the World Bank in one of the key documents presented at the 12-13 March forum on Higher Education for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 15% of the global population, when it comes to science, technology and innovation it has less than 3% of all researchers globally.

"Scientists in the region publish less than 2% of articles in peer-reviewed international journals and most of those are in Egypt and South Africa," Professor Romain Murenzi, executive director of The World Academy of Sciences, told senior representatives from government, academia and business attending the forum in Kigali.

According to Murenzi, most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are spectators to global science and innovation initiatives. He pointed out that two-thirds of new scientific knowledge in Sub-Saharan Africa was produced in South Africa.

"Technologists from the entire sub-region file less than 0.1% of applications received by the United States Patent Office," said Murenzi, quoting statistics from UNESCO.

Taking into account that the main purpose of the Kigali forum was to focus on how to align higher education in Africa with the continent's massive unmet demand for high-level skills, Murenzi urged governments to develop the necessary science, technology, research and innovation capacity.

"You should reverse the trend where only 25% of university students are enrolled in sciences if you want to shape Africa's future in the 21st Century," he said.

He urged African countries to learn from the success of countries such as Brazil, China and Malaysia, which in the last two decades have invested heavily in science and technology and related education. Because of sustained investment, leading universities in these countries are catching up with research centres across the developed world.

Growing PhD training

Dr Martial De-Paul Ikounga, commissioner for human resources, science and technology at the African Union secretariat, called for the expansion of science and technology PhD programmes in African universities.

Stressing the need for scientific scholarship and innovation, Ikounga urged African countries to continue supporting the Pan African University, the African Union-backed postgraduate training and research network with sites in Algeria, Cameroon, Kenya and Nigeria, and one to come in Southern Africa.

"Postgraduate education towards the PhD level in science, engineering and technology is not a luxury but a necessity to improve academic scholarship and innovation," said Ikounga.

In this regard Tawhid Nawaz, operations advisor for the World Bank's human development network, described its support for new centres of excellence. It has just helped to select universities to host 19 new centres in West Africa, each of which will receive some US$8 million to create research and high-level training hubs in science fields.

The idea on the part of the bank and other stakeholders, Nawaz explained, was to build research and training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. "No country can prosper without paying attention to human capital," said Nawaz.


Delegates attending the Kigali forum were made aware of obstacles that need to be eradicated if Sub-Saharan Africa's countries are to make progress towards knowledge-based economies by 2025 and beyond.

According to Diop, in order to build a critical mass of high-level human capital in areas key to development, there is an urgent need to improve learning outcomes in secondary schools as well as to revise curricula that are heavily skewed towards social sciences and humanities.

He noted that most secondary school students lacked mathematics skills and many were not willing to study science-based degrees.

Further, countries would have to deal with systemic corruption, improve information and communication technology skills and invest in science teachers and infrastructure.

Delegates were also reminded of the negative impact of the brain drain on African universities.

Dr Fernando Quevedo, director of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, said African universities were highly embedded in national politics, had limited research and teaching resources and lacked the academic freedom and independence needed to attract top foreign scholars and researchers.

"If African universities are to become centres for excellence, then they should stay away from the political issues of the day and concentrate on research," said Quevedo.

Lidia Brito, director of UNESCO's division of science policy and capacity building, said universities in Sub-Saharan were stifled by lack of robust national or regional development agendas.

"Their quality assurance systems are weak and most of them suffer from inexistence of research and teaching facilities, weak infrastructure, poor systems of governance and absence of innovation policies, programmes and mechanisms," Brito told delegates at the forum.

In addition, Brito said, too often students and lecturers were concerned about the relevance of some of the programmes offered. Most universities were also unable to offer postgraduate training due to shortages of qualified senior staff.

Hope for the future

Despite the numerous shortcomings described, the Kigali forum signalled hope for the future, as the five countries pledged to rejuvenate their tattered universities.

According to Vincent Biruta, Rwanda's education minister, the countries planned to upgrade resources for science education in some of their national universities.

President Paul Kagame also announced that the five countries that are members of the East African Community - Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - had agreed to establish an East African Science and Technology Commission to focus on improving science education in the region.