Presidents pledge more science money, less gender bias

African heads of state attending the Next Einstein Forum’s Global Gathering 2016 in Senegal pledged to improve science funding and promote the enrolment and retention of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Quality assurance, a continental research fund and a science policy institute were also agreed by several leaders attending the forum that took place from 8-10 March in the capital Dakar. They included Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, as well as several ministers of higher education, science and technology.

Global Gathering 2016 was attended by representatives from more than 80 countries, and more than 800 individuals and 100 organisations from all the continents of the world. Among them were representatives from every country in Africa.

Ahead of hosting the next edition of the Next Einstein Forum in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda in 2018, government leaders agreed that science had a significant role in promoting human development and driving Africa forward to become a leading member of the global scientific community.

“We are convinced that youth armed with STEM training will be capable of meeting tomorrow’s greatest challenges, including violence and discrimination,” said Mamadou Sangare, a mathematics professor at the leading University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, reading the closing statement of the heads of state.

They resolved to reposition education systems in Africa towards STEM fields. Attaining more STEM tertiary graduates in Africa was a goal, and would entail prioritising STEM education – the target being to double the community of STEM graduates across Africa by 2025.

Mere provision of STEM education was not enough, the leaders said – there was a need for graduates to be internationally competitive. “We commit to continually increase the quality of STEM education in Africa, leading to a community of internationally competitive graduates with the skills, knowledge, networks and culture to lead development in Africa.”

Gender-based discrimination was acknowledged as a big challenge so an agreement was reached to promote the enrolment and retention of women in STEM, through investments.

“We commit to increased investment in science and technology, to reach 0.7% of gross domestic product by 2020 and 1% of GDP by 2025,” the leaders said, adding that the main focus would be on women and youth in STEM fields.

The UNESCO Science Report, published in November 2015, says several African countries are improving gross expenditure on research and development or R&D, while the continent’s overall publication output grew 60% between 2008 and 2014. Africa’s gross expenditure on R&D grew from US$12.9 billion in 2007 to US$19.9 billion in 2013.

This uplifting trend is however peppered by the fact that investment in science and technology in Africa as percentage of GDP is still very low.

Quality assurance, industry and women

The leaders agreed to support the independent quality assessment of universities in Africa, saying that an evaluation system must be created by an independent authority to ensure the quality of teaching of science and technology at the tertiary level.

Academia-industry partnerships, which often came under spotlight during the gathering, were singled out for strengthening. Also, more programmes including streamlined internship initiatives to support the job readiness of STEM graduates, were suggested.

Female scientists’ contributions were acknowledged and a commitment was made to prioritise the enrolment and retention of women in STEM programmes at the tertiary and postgraduate levels in Africa.

“We commit to target 30% women at the tertiary level by 2020 and 40% women at the tertiary level by 2025,” the leaders said.

The creation of networks for women scientists, including mentoring to support their growth, was called for as one path to help forge an African scientific identity.

Partnerships, R&D fund and a policy institute

Collaboration among researchers in Africa is not as strong as it should be, and the leaders said partnerships between African countries would be nurtured. The development of intra-African science partnerships would be prioritised, based on excellence, sustainability and quality.

The leaders agreed to creating a continental research and development fund aligned to the goals of the African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, or STISA 2024, with a funding mechanism and operational coordination to be created before the next NEF Global Gathering.

STISA 2024 sets out a vision for Africa to use science, technology and innovation as a tool to boost economic and social development, and was adopted by African heads of state in Equatorial Guinea in 2014.

Also to be established is an NEF Policy Institute that – in collaboration with the African Union Commission and member countries, the African Academy of Sciences and other partners – will track Africa’s science, technology and innovation progress through indices and reports, as well as provide measurable recommendations to accelerate Africa’s scientific emergence.

The first group of 15 Next Einstein Fellows were honoured at the meeting for being global torch bearers for scientific achievement in Africa. They are: Noble Banadda, Ghada Bassioni, Sherien Elagroudy, Evelyn Gitau, Mohlopheni Jackson Marakalala, Axel Ngonga, Tolullah Oni, Aletta E Schutte, Komminist Weldemariam, Joseph Ben Geloun, Mouhamed Moustapha Fall, Assane Gueye, Wilfred Ndifon, Hallowed Olaoluwa and Amanda Weltman.