Sub-Saharan science on the rise, but slowly – UNESCO

Africa’s research output rose to 33,300 publications last year, up from 21,000 in 2008, according to UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030, published last Tuesday. Africa’s world share of publications jumped from 2% to 2.6%.

The number of publications per million inhabitants in Africa increased from 21 to 29 – still very low.

During the same period, total global publications rose from 1,029,271 in 2008 to 1,270, 425 – an increase of 23.4%. The European Union leads the world for publications with 34%, followed by the United States with 25%. But the world shares of both have fallen over the past five years.

China’s rise in publications has been meteoric – production has doubled in the past five years, clinching 20% of the global share last year. A decade ago, China’s share accounted for just 5% of global publications, says the UNESCO report.

The regions

South Africa is top of Africa in peer-reviewed publications, producing 5,611 in 2008 and 9,309 last year – also a 60% increase. South Africa’s global share of publications rose from 0.5% to 0.7% in the same period, while publications per million inhabitants rose from 112 to 175.

Although way behind South Africa, in the Southern African Development Community or SADC, Tanzania is in second position followed by Malawi and Zimbabwe. According to the report, publication output from Malawi and Mozambique has almost tripled since 2005.

However, in terms of publications per million inhabitants, Seychelles leads SADC with 364 publications followed by South Africa (175), Botswana (103), Mauritius (71), Namibia (59) and Zimbabwe (21). Probably because of incessant conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the report shows the country had only two papers per million inhabitants.

“So far, the research sector has had little impact in West Africa, owing to a lack of national research and innovation strategies, low investment in research and development, little private-sector involvement and little intraregional collaboration among West African researchers,” says the report.

“West African output remains low, with only the Gambia and Cabo Verde [Cape Verde] publishing 50 scientific articles or more per million inhabitants.”

As of last year, publications per million inhabitants in the Gambia and Cape Verde stood at 65 and 50 papers respectively, compared to 23 papers in Senegal, 22 in Ghana and a mere 11 for Nigeria. Seven West African countries had 10 or fewer papers per one million inhabitants.

In East and Central Africa, researchers in Gabon were most productive. Last year the country had 80 publications per one million inhabitants, followed by Cameroon (31), Kenya (30), Congo (24), Uganda (20), Rwanda (12) and Ethiopia (9). But in numbers, most publications in the region were produced by Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Cameroon in that order.

African research is dominated by life sciences and agriculture, with little produced in physical sciences, engineering, technology and mathematics.

Researcher numbers

The total number of researchers worldwide rose from 6.4 million in 2007 to 7.8 million in 2013, posting an increase of 21%, says the UNESCO report.

The number of researchers in Africa rose from 150,100 in 2007 to 187,500 in 2013, representing 2.4% of the global share of researchers. In 2007, Africa had 2.3% of the global share of researchers.

The situation is worse in Sub-Saharan Africa, although again, slowly improving. The number of researchers rose from 58,800 in 2007 to 82,000 in 2013, while the region’s share of global researchers rose from a mere 0.9% in 2007 to 1.1% in 2013.

The report shows that there were about 157 researchers per one million inhabitants in Africa in 2007, and by 2013 the figure had risen marginally to 168 researchers, while the global average rose from 959 researchers to 1,083. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of researchers per million of the population rose from 77 in 2007 to 91 in 2013.

South Africa has the largest number of researchers per million inhabitants in Sub-Saharan Africa, at 818. Other countries in the region with more than 300 researchers per million include Senegal (631), Gabon (350), Botswana (344), Namibia (343) and Kenya (318).

The report says the slight increase in the number of researchers per million people in Sub-Saharan Africa was partly a result of the 2008 economic crisis. “Even countries suffering from brain drain started attracting researchers,” said Professor Luc Soete, rector magnificus of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and associates, who wrote one of the report’s key chapters.

Research spending

The world’s overall gross expenditure on research and development, as a share of gross domestic product, increased by 31% between 2007 and 2015, rising from US$1.132 billion in 2007 to US$1.478 billion in 2013.

“This was less than the 47% increase recorded over the previous period (2002 to 2007), but a significant increase nevertheless,” says the report.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, only Malawi – one of the world’s poorest countries – spends more than 1% of gross domestic product, or GDP, on research and development – at 1.06%. South Africa’s expenditure on R&D dropped from 0.89% in 2008 to 0.73% of GDP.

Countries that have been spending 0.5% or more of GDP on research and development include Kenya (0.79%), Mali (0.66%), Ethiopia (0.61%), Gabon (0.58%), Senegal (0.54%) and Tanzania (0.52%). Botswana has indicated its intention to increase its research funding from a current 0.26% to 2% next year.

Despite major challenges, the report is quite optimistic that R&D in Africa is poised to gain momentum through economic regional integration and international cooperation.

“The proposed African Economic Community by 2028 as well as the ongoing development of networks of centres of excellence across the continent should foster greater scientific mobility and information-sharing among scientists,” says the report.