Africa needs confident scientists in global partnerships

More than a ‘next Einstein’, says University of Cambridge Vice-chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, “Africa needs scientists who are confident and able to harness the power of global partnerships” and forge closer collaboration with policy-makers and the private sector.

Gone are the days of the “solitary genius”, he said. Africa must focus on producing a large new generation of excellent, high-publishing, globally networked scientists who work in teams to find solutions to Africa’s pressing challenges.

Sir Leszek was speaking at the first Global Gathering for African science, hosted by the Next Einstein Forum or NEF and held in Senegal’s capital Dakar from 8-10 March. The NEF is an initiative of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, or AIMS, in partnership with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, aimed at advancing science in Africa to solve global challenges.

The vice-chancellor was a founding patron for the Global Gathering. Cambridge, he said, had been “proudly involved with AIMS from the very beginning. The idea of a meeting of minds, focused on enhancing the capacity of research institutions in Africa, resonated with my own views on how we can unleash the potential of African science.”

Shortage of STEM skills

Around the world, Sir Leszek said, governments and businesses were reporting a growing shortage of skilled workers and researchers in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – areas. “This shortage is felt most acutely in the developing world.”

Africa needs a staggering 2.5 million engineers to tackle its most basic infrastructural challenges. “How many more doctors and nurses, how many more crop scientists and computer programmers, does the continent require – not to develop its full potential, but sometimes even to cover its essential needs?” he asked.

“One apparently obvious solution has been to focus on recruiting more young women and men into university careers in science and technology. But here, as elsewhere in the world, access to higher education remains the greatest sticking point.”

Data from Senegal suggested that fewer than 5% of young people attend university. In Ethiopia participation is about 13% – “still far behind the 30% global average for university enrolment. So across the region, the challenge is tremendous.”

Researchers at Cambridge have found that the best way to increase the numbers of young people – especially women – entering science is to focus on improving learning in the early years. “It is in those early years that the inequalities of opportunity associated with gender, and with poverty, become most deeply embedded,” said Sir Leszek.

The role of universities

Sir Leszek asked: beyond the indispensable task of training teachers, what might the role of universities in Africa be in developing the pipeline into science and research?

One is for universities to galvanise interest among children by enabling contact with science and scientists. In the United Kingdom, research has shown that the decision to pursue science as a career is established between the ages of nine and 11.

He gave the annual Cambridge Science Festival as an example: over two weeks hundreds of academics, students and volunteers give children from five to 16 hands-on experiences in fields ranging from veterinary medicine to robotics. Last year there were 45,000 visitors.

The role of universities extends beyond offering young people the skills needed to enter the workforce. Students need to be educated not just for today but also for future challenges. “And we must go even further. Universities – in Africa and elsewhere – must also be incubators of global citizens, and generators of future leadership. Scientific leadership yes, but also civic leadership. There is no greater task.”

Universities, Sir Leszek continued, are at the forefront of the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge that results in direct benefits to society and fuels economic growth.

He gave the example of Cambridge. “The over 1,600 companies developed with 60,000 jobs for the 600,000 people – less than 1% of the UK population – who live in the vicinity of our city create more than £13 billion [US$19 billion] for the UK. All of this is built on the know-how generated by the university, and exploited through partnership with business.

“This is what every government that is impatient for societal benefit wants to hear,” Sir Leszek said. “However, this success comes with a real health warning to policy-makers.

“First – science is hard, and there is never a guarantee of success. Second – it takes time. In my own field of biomedicine it takes 17 years for a discovery at the laboratory bench to be translated to direct patient benefit. There are few short cuts that have not been already tried.”

Third, said the vice-chancellor, “supporting science that investigators wish to pursue is possibly more profitable in the long term than ‘science agendas set by committee’”. But it takes real courage on the part of policy-makers to invest, “because it is a shot in the dark”.

African presidents attending the NEF gathering repeatedly stated their commitment to allocating scarce resources to science and research. “But it will be hard for them. We are setting out on a difficult road that scientists and policy-makers must travel together.”

The importance of partnerships

Sir Leszek asked some hard questions of the Global Gathering.

The first was the naming of the Next Einstein Forum. While Einstein was a great scientist, perhaps the ‘next Einstein’ was not what Africa needed?

“What we should be doing is trying to find the next Nelson Sewankambo, or the next Tumani Corrah. My point is that perhaps we are too quick to invoke Einstein. I say that, not because our aspirations are too low – but because they should be much higher.

“They must revolve around a new generation of African scientists, working on African solutions to some of Africa’s most pressing issues,” he said.

A second troubling matter was whether the Einstein ‘model’ could work. “While Einstein was the sole author of the paper predicting gravitational waves, the recent scientific paper confirming the detection of those waves had more than 1,000 authors from around the world.

“So we evoke Einstein as a role model because of his groundbreaking ideas and his insatiable scientific curiosity. In reality, however, we cannot continue to look upon the solitary genius, brilliant as he was, as a viable model for science today,” Sir Leszek argued.

Challenges faced are global, and so too are their solutions. “The complexity, the scale and the urgency of the challenges demand that we work together and collaboration is the name of the game. What African science needs is not a new Einstein – or even 100 new Einsteins.

“Africa needs scientists who are confident and able to harness the power of global partnerships. African scientists need to respond to the imperative of strategic alliances. African scientists need to set the agenda of closer collaboration between academia, policy-makers and the private sector.”