University research collaboration is key to meeting SDGs

Africa’s ability to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is closely tied up with its research capacity, which hands universities on the continent a particular responsibility for enhanced collaboration, and engagement with government and industry, according to African speakers at the sixth World Sustainability Forum held recently in Cape Town, South Africa.

African universities can contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals through capacity building, collaboration, and engagement with government and industry, the global academic community at the recent World Sustainability Forum heard.

The forum, the first to be held in Africa, was sponsored by the journal Sustainability, with support from the University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town, University of Basel and the National Research Foundation of South Africa. It took place from 27-28 January.

According to Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at the University of Cape Town, it is striking how closely the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, adopted in 2015, speak to the problems of the African continent.

A keynote speaker at the forum, Phakeng said Africa lacks university-based research which is critical in achieving sustainable development and delivering on the SDGs.

Some African universities in the post-independence phase were still undergraduate training institutions; research was not part of their programmes and universities were still running programmes for the public sector, she said.

In recognition of the importance of research, some African governments had set up independent research institutes and centres, but these were usually established and funded separately from universities and had fed the notion that research happens outside of universities.

The contribution of African universities themselves was hamstrung by a number of other challenges and this was reflected in low research outputs, she said.

Poor research output

Phakeng noted that African research accounted for only 1% of global output, with most of it coming out of South Africa where it was concentrated in certain universities.

She said over the last 15 years more than 500,000 research papers on climate change had been published but about 80% of these were published by OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – countries.

African countries by contrast had low numbers of active researchers per capita and per higher education employee due to higher teaching loads and lower levels of investment in research and development. For example, the proportion of gross domestic product going towards research in nine African countries averaged 0.5%, she said.

“Inferior research infrastructure in African universities makes it difficult for African researchers to compete with researchers elsewhere in the world who have state-of-the-art equipment for their research,” she said.

Low levels of research collaboration and knowledge exchange between academia and industry in Africa, an ageing scientist cohort, and various factors leading to a pervasive brain drain were also hindering Africa’s progress, she said.

Collaboration and engagement

According to Phakeng, universities could help to contribute to achieving the SDGs through capacity building, collaboration, and greater engagement with government and industry.

She called for greater academic collaboration among African universities and researchers.

“The challenge I see with African researchers is that we get into international collaborations as subordinates and we remain there,” she said.

“It’s never our question, it’s never our agenda,” she said.

Strengthening intra-African collaborations and sharing of teaching and research infrastructure were critical, she said.

“With the limited resources that we have, we cannot afford to have every university owning the same equipment and operating at the same level,” she said.

Endorsing her views on the power of collaboration, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, said the grand challenges facing the world could only be solved through collaboration. “It will not be a single scientist working in isolation in his or her laboratory that will make an impact on the challenges,” said Pretorius.

It is in this context that the role of the university or other institutions of higher education was critical, he said.

Professor Teboho Moja, higher education professor from New York University, USA, said universities should create an awareness of sustainable development as a driver of behavioural change.

“Our concerns should not be about only caring physically for the environment, but also addressing social and political issues that impact constitutional development,” she said.


Dr Lidia Brito, director of the division of science policy and capacity building at UNESCO, said the capacity of universities to bring experts together was a major strength, particularly as issues relating to sustainable development were “interconnected and interdependent”, she said.

Emphasising the importance of working across disciplines, Professor Daya Reddy, the president elect of the International Council for Science and acting deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town, said knowledge needed to be shared across all disciplines and sectors.

“The core design, the collaborative formulation of questions of problems must be done amongst individuals from academia, civil society and government,” said Reddy.