A continental quest for scientific independence

Africa’s quest for scientific independence is likely to be a long journey on a bumpy road full of potholes, leading to who knows where, taking into account that the continent has no culture of philanthropy and government expenditure on research and development is extremely low.

That was one of the key messages emanating from scientists who attended the launch forum of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, or AESA, last month in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

AESA is a joint project of the African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and is financially backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development.

Addressing delegates the President of Mauritius, Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, rooted for intensive domestic funding for science education, research and innovation in Africa.

“To close the scientific research gap between Africa and the rest of the world, there is urgent need to generate funds locally to support research initiatives on the continent,” she said.

The extent of the problem

According to the Mauritian president, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa spend way too little on research, a fact that is reflected in the sub-region’s dismally low research output. “Currently, the region accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output while being home to 12% of the global population,” stated Gurib-Fakim.

While level of expenditure on research and development is considered globally as an indicator of countries’ efforts to improve economic growth, in Africa only South Africa and Tunisia have come close to spending 1% of gross domestic product, or GDP, on research.

Low engagement in research and innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa is also mirrored in the numbers of scientists and engineers in the population – the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank.

“The ratio of scientists and researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa stands at just 79 per million population, compared to a world average of 1,081 per million,” said Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice-president for Africa.

While research output in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased in quantity and quality in the past decade, the region’s global share of research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – declined marginally.

A World Bank study, A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research, found that research output in STEM fields “lags behind that of other subject areas significantly”.

Further, most researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa rely heavily on international collaboration and visiting faculty for their research output.

“In 2012, 79%, 70% and 45% of all research by Southern Africa, East Africa, and West and Central Africa respectively, were produced through international collaborations,” noted the study produced by the World Bank jointly with Elsevier, a major provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services.

Need to rejuvenate research

While most scientists at the AESA launch hailed the international support African research initiatives were getting from donors and collaborators, there was underlying concern that the time had come for Africa to rejuvenate its scientific institutions and universities.

“Weak scientific institutions and universities are currently the hallmark of Africa’s research environment,” said Gurib-Fakim, who is also a biodiversity scientist and a former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius.

She argued that if Africa was to attain scientific and technological independence, countries should focus on initiatives to mobilise science and technology for sustainable development.

Such views were also held by Dr Abdoulaye Djimde, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Bamako in Mali, who argued that success in science in Africa would not be achieved through donations but by hard work and local investment.

Djimde explained how countries such as China, India, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan had made strides in industrial research and innovation by not just investing about 2% GDP in research but also by training and retaining a large cohort of talented human resources.

“Subsequently, in the last 15 years, per capita GDP has doubled in South Korea and Singapore and even tripled in Taiwan,” said Djimde.

Zero support

The message coming across was that African countries could no longer depend only on external financiers to fund basic and strategic research. There was frustration that African leaders were not doing enough to support a renaissance in science on the continent.

Comments about the political malaise regarding research were grounded in zero financial support for AESA by African countries.

AESA’s seed kitty of US$5.5 million was contributed by foreign donors – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and United Kingdom Department for International Development, or DfID.

AESA flagship research initiatives are also supported jointly by the Wellcome Trust and DfID, to the tune of US$70 million over an initial five year period. So while AESA will spearhead health research in Africa, its roots are firmly embedded in external funding.

While Africa should continue strengthening its research and development through external support and partnership, there is urgent need for African governments to stop abdicating their leadership on research and development to outsiders.

According to Gurib-Fakim, who considers herself an ‘ambassador’ for science, African countries should quickly adopt the chapter on science development in the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, which urged African countries to promote research and development, particularly by providing the necessary financial resources.

“We should also adopt the Africa Union’s Addis Ababa declaration on science, technology and scientific research for development of 2007, which called on African countries to allocate at least 1% of GDP to science,” said Gurib-Fakim.

Above all, for Africa to make progress in its scientific research agenda, there is a need to reduce ‘brain drain’, promote ‘brain gain’ and pay attention to universities' ambitions to increase their output of PhDs and other doctoral graduates in science.

The crux of the matter is that highly skilled workers and entrepreneurs are central to a country’s innovation system. But sadly, most African countries are lagging behind in terms of the quantity and quality of doctoral cadres needed to lead the scientific research initiative.

Too few PhDs

According to Dr Evelyn Chiyevo Garwe, deputy CEO of the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education, most African universities concentrate on offering degrees at bachelor and masters level at the expense of offering PhDs.

In a study published last month, The Status Quo of Doctoral Education in Universities in Zimbabwe, Garwe highlighted how undergraduate programmes in most African universities are described as the ‘bread and butter’ of higher education – especially private students who pay full-cost fees in public or private universities.

Garwe said that last year there were only 150 doctoral students in universities in Zimbabwe, and they accounted for a mere 0.18% of total student enrolments. “These findings resonate with others across Sub-Saharan Africa that doctoral programmes are facing severe neglect,” she said.

Quoting a study by Piyushi Kotecha, CEO of the Southern African Regional Universities Association, and associates three years ago on the status of doctoral education in countries of the Southern African Development Community, Garwe said the overall share of doctoral students in the region was 1% – and only 0.17% if South Africa was excluded.

Garwe cited lack of supervisors and inadequate funding for research as major problems, especially in science, engineering and technology disciplines. “The nature of research in those areas calls for expensive equipment and consumables as well as frequent visits to study sites, but unfortunately most universities do not allocate money for research,” said Garwe.

Assuming that Sub-Saharan Africa and indeed the entire continent is bent on gaining a foothold on the global science precipice, there is a need to improve the quality of secondary education in order to build capacities for applied, problem-solving science, engineering and technology.

Urgent need for skills, jobs for youth

Currently, research in the physical sciences and STEM fields comprises only 29% of all research in Sub-Saharan Africa, a lower proportion than any other region in the world.

Worse, in the next 20 years the Sub-Saharan region will have more people joining the labour force than the rest of the world combined – and most of them will not have skills required in the 21st century.

“African countries and institutions have no option but to improve the transition of youth from education to stable employment by encouraging students to build skills in science and technology, by strengthening science and mathematics education at all levels,” said Diop.

The crux of the matter is that the burgeoning working-age population will need to be gainfully employed to avoid the challenges of a large jobless and restive group of population.

The World Bank is urging African countries to start making investments to support education and provide the youth bulge with the necessary skills to meet market demands.

Delegates at the AESA forum argued that Africa could start addressing the issue by investing 1% of their gross domestic product on science, research and development.

“With the combined GDP of Africa coming close to US$2.6 trillion, the amount that could potentially be allocated for science is over US$200 billion per annum,” said Gurib-Fakim in her speech to the conference.

Increasing Africa’s share in world scientific production will be a major challenge, but it must be achieved to avoid the risk of most young people becoming long-term unemployed and difficult to integrate into society and the economy in future.

But as Gurib-Fakim and others pointed out, now is the time for Africa to tackle mediocrity in science and technology. Otherwise it will take a long time – if ever – for Africa to achieve scientific independence.