STEM research in Sub-Sahara declining – World Bank

Research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields in Sub-Saharan Africa has declined in the last 10 years in quantity and citation impact – but there has been steady progress in other sciences, especially health – according to a new World Bank report.

Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Research: A decade of development reveals that while the continent’s research output has grown, its STEM research – excluding South Africa – has been declining at the rate of 0.2% annually since 2002.

“Sub-Saharan Africa’s output growth has overwhelmingly been driven by advances in health sciences research (approximately 4% annual growth), which now accounts for 45% of all Sub-Saharan Africa research,” says the World Bank.

This is very good news for two reasons – first, strong and Africa-relevant health research and well-trained workers will have a great impact on a continent facing huge health challenges, and second, it demonstrates that persistent support from development partners and governments pays off.

The study

The study was released on 19 November in Washington as part of a series of technical outputs produced under the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology initiative, popularly known as PASET.

Preliminary findings from the study were presented at a high-level forum on higher education for science, technology and innovation held in the Rwandan capital Kigali in March 2014, attended by representatives from Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda.

According to principal investigator Andreas Blom and his associates – Mariam Adil, an education consultant at the World Bank, and George Lan, an analytical product manager for Elsevier – the study takes into account not just the region’s overall STEM research output in terms of peer-reviewed papers but also citation impact.

“Citation impact is vital as it indicates the strengths of a region’s research enterprise [in relation] to the outside world,” said Blom, who is the World Bank’s lead economist for African education.

Citation impact discloses the influence of academic papers and has become a key indicator of research excellence from the point of view of users.

STEM research lagging

While Sub-Saharan Africa’s research output has doubled in the last 10 years and currently has a 1.4% share of global research, citations of the region’s peer-reviewed STEM-related articles comprised a very small share of global citations.

According to the study, in the last 10 years, citations of papers published by researchers from Sub-Saharan Africa increased from between 0.06% and 0.16% for each of the three regions – West and Central Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa – to between 0.12% and 0.28%.

In the study, South Africa is considered a different entity from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

“In 2012, the quality of STEM research in Sub-Saharan Africa, as measured by relative citation impact, was merely 0.68, which was 32% below the global average,” notes the report.

The STEM citation impact was below that of all disciplines in the sub-region, which stood at 0.92 against the global average of 1.00. Unfortunately, the situation has stayed the same since 2003. In contrast, STEM research in South Africa was slightly above the world average, as it stood at 1.02 and had improved by 15% since 2003.

By comparing the STEM research performance of West and Central Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa to that of Malaysia, South Africa and Vietnam, the World Bank says STEM in Sub-Saharan Africa is lagging in terms of research quantity and citation quality.

While the region’s STEM research share has been declining, it has been growing by 2% annually in Malaysia and Vietnam. “The two countries had a comparable research base to the Sub-Saharan Africa regions at the beginning of the period of analysis,” say Blom and associates.

Reasons for the STEM problem

Drawing on information outside the study, the World Bank suggests the large STEM gap could be linked to the low quality of basic education in science and maths, and higher education systems that are skewed towards disciplines other than STEM.

According to the African Union’s committee on education, science and technology, enrolment in higher education in Sub-Saharan Africa still stands at 7% of the age cohort, which is way too low compared with other world regions.

“Whereas many countries are pushing to reverse the proportion of the fields and disciplines in favour of science and technology, the enrolment landscape is dominated by humanities and social sciences,” says a committee report issued in October this year.

According to UNESCO, stagnant higher education in STEM disciplines has resulted in reduced numbers of researchers in the region, which currently stands at 91.4 researchers per million inhabitants against the global average of 1,003 per million people.

This situation has led to fewer inventions today than in the early 1990s. “An analysis of patents signed in the last 15 years shows that many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are falling behind in innovation initiatives,” says UNESCO.

Lack of research infrastructure is also cited as a major drawback for STEM research in most African countries. The problem is linked to poor funding as countries are spending only between 0.25% and 0.5% of gross domestic product on research and development.

International collaboration

STEM research in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa relies heavily on international collaboration, a factor that signals lack of internal research capacity or the critical mass needed for the continent to produce international quality research on its own.

“For instance, in 2012 about 80%, 70% and 45% of all research by Southern Africa, East Africa and West and Central Africa respectively was produced through international collaborations,” say Blom and associates.

In contrast, 68%, 45%, and 32% of the research output of Vietnam, South Africa and Malaysia respectively relied on international collaborations.

Analysing the underlying causes for lack of capacity, the researchers identify shortcomings in the quality of PhD programmes, research funding and faculty incentives for research.

The study confirms that a large number of Sub-Saharan Africa researchers are non-local and transitory and spend less than two years at institutions in the region. Some 39% of researchers in East Africa and 48% from Southern Africa fall into this category.

Little inter-African cooperation

The World Bank also faults research in Sub-Saharan Africa for being fragmented, with the regions collaborating very little with one another.

“Inter-Sub-Saharan Africa collaborations – excluding South African collaboration – comprise just 2% of all research output in Eastern Africa, 0.9% in West and Central Africa and 2.9% for Southern Africa.”

There also appears to be little knowledge transfer or collaboration between Sub-Saharan African academics and the corporate sector, as measured by corporate downloads and patent citations of African academic research, especially in STEM disciplines.

According to the World Bank study’s statistics, academic and corporate collaborations comprised between 1% and 2.4% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s total research output from 2003-12. “Such trends suggest that global corporations do not rely much on African-generated knowledge and research for their competitiveness,” it says.

Despite such shortcomings, international collaboration has been highly instrumental in raising the citation impact of Sub-Saharan African publications.

According to Blom and associates, such collaborations were between 3.23 and 3.82 times as impactful as the African regions’ institutional collaborations. In contrast, the multiplying factors for South Africa, Malaysia and Vietnam were 2.7, 1.3, and 1.9 respectively.

Among the top collaborators with researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa were Harvard University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Cape Town, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Liverpool and the Pasteur Institute.

“The World Bank recommends that governments in the region and development partners accelerate support to research and research-based education to build the necessary human capital to further increase research on solving African problems by Africans for Africans.”