Closing the gap in science leadership

For Dr Samson Khene, a lecturer in physical chemistry at a South African university, the Africa Science Leadership Programme has opened his eyes to the power and responsibility of science to solve complex social problems.

The Africa Science Leadership Programme, an initiative of the University of Pretoria and the Global Young Academy, aims to serve as a vehicle to close the gap between developing and developed countries by growing mid-career African academics in the areas of thought leadership, team management and research development.

The programme supports scientists in applying acquired skills to projects relevant to academic development, and so contribute towards solving complex issues facing both Africa and the global community. It also seeks to create a network of African academic leaders on the continent across disciplinary boundaries as well as develop a curriculum for academic leadership development which can be utilised in other institutions in Africa and elsewhere.

Khene, who is based at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, was among 22 outstanding scientists from all major regions of Africa chosen to participate in the third round of the Africa Science Leadership Programme workshop in South Africa from 22-27 March. The workshop is followed by a year-long mentorship programme and another workshop in March next year.

According to Khene, the programme thus far has enabled him to exchange notes with and learn from scientists representing basic and applied sciences in a variety of disciplines that include the social sciences and humanities.

An ‘eye-opening’ experience

In an interview with University World News, Khene described the conference programme as an “eye-opener” for African scientists.

“The conference could not have come at a better time, when science leadership in Africa is most needed. The programme allowed me to recognise that science has a social mission, that social problems are complex problems which cannot be solved by one discipline alone; hence, transdisciplinary or convergence science is needed. This means bringing all disciplines into one room with the aim of solving human problems.

“I had the opportunity to form networks with other leaders from across Africa. African scientists need to start collaborating more with each other,” he said.

Khene said one of the most important talking points that emerged from the March meeting was the recognition that science is about leadership, an idea which provides new ways of thinking about the world because it is inherently transformative.

He said scientists need to show leadership by taking part in public debates and play an active role in society, including commenting on instances where science is distorted.

“The rise of social media has enabled anyone to comment and share their opinion on social platforms on any topic, regardless of whether one is qualified to offer such opinions. Hence we live in a world where everything is open to question and science is not spared.

Science in ‘post truth’ world

“This new world was termed the ‘post truth’ world, where scientific knowledge is no longer trusted over one’s opinions. However, scientific knowledge is still the most trusted among other ways of knowing. Therefore, African science leaders have a responsibility and a very important role to play in society,” he said.

Khene said being part of the Africa Science Leadership Programme will change his work for the better.

He believes he has a responsibility as an African science leader to promote scientific literacy in society through transdisciplinary dialogues, with the hope of changing how science is perceived in society and to influence behavioural change with regards to harmful practices in society.

As part of those transdisciplinary dialogues, he is now working on the formation of Rhodes University science dialogues.

“The dialogues will be transdisciplinary and the target audience will be university students, academics, school teachers and the Grahamstown community. This initiative has changed my work for the better, since I feel that I have a responsibility to actively improve science literacy in society,” he said.


According to programme coordinator Smeetha Singh, the programme relies on a sustainable mentor-mentee cycle for capacity building and networking. Singh said online resources are used to enhance transdisciplinary research collaboration within the network, as well as improve communication and performance between mentors and mentees.

Singh said the programme aims to create a network through which African scholars and research institutions can connect and work together to shape research in Africa.

“The project also aims to develop science leadership in Africa through science literacy and transdisciplinary communication by simplifying scientific concepts in a manner that can easily be understood and utilised by communities and policy makers,” she said.

“A successful outcome requires community engagement throughout – technology conceptualisation, development, implementation, assessment and impact evaluation.”

In a statement, Professor Bernard Slippers, the project leader from the University of Pretoria and past co-chair of the Global Young Academy, said African science has potential, but is currently underdeveloped.

“African science is brimming with potential, but is currently underdeveloped. The African Science Leadership Programme recognises the need for quality and collective leadership skills among the next generation of scientists, who are steering the development and expansion of this system,” he said.