Greater investment needed to nurture ‘culture of science’

Science and technology are seen as key to the continent’s transformation and growth but greater investment in higher education and research institutions is needed if a 'culture of science' is to take root and grow, the recent Next Einstein Forum (NEF) in Kigali, Rwanda has heard.

During an NEF plenary session, panelists drawn from academia, government and the private sector shared ideas on how to build a culture of science in Africa with approximately 500 delegates in attendance.

According to the panelists, Africa’s scientific culture is deeply rooted in the education system and there is need for increased investment in this sector, starting from primary level and reaching up to institutions of higher learning. Research universities in particular are seen as critical to the growth in innovation needed for the continent’s participation in the next industrial revolution.

The panelists argued that the continent needs educational sector reforms that ensure its curricula are centred on local issues so as to build African science that can provide solutions to Africa’s problems such as food insecurity, and reduce the burden of disease.

“Our education sector is largely Western-based,” said Nathalie Munyampenda, NEF’s managing director. This, she argued, encourages a more theoretical kind of knowledge as opposed to practical skills. “We have many cases where some of our students pursuing scientific courses graduate without practical skills and do not meet industry demands, making it difficult for them to contribute to the growth of a nation,” said Munyampenda.

Suggesting that this approach could explain why 50% of Africa’s human capital potential is not captured, she said there was a need to invest in infrastructure such as science laboratories at primary school level to encourage specialisation at an early stage.

Echoing Munyampenda’s views on practical learning but arguing a case for humanities, Professor José Moura, who is a Philip L and Marsha Dowd professor and associate department head for research and strategy, electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, said: “We need to make learning practically oriented and based on critical thinking in both the sciences and the humanities.”

He said Africa needs to take a leaf from the United States of America by having more science museums and zoos to help educate young scientists. This, he says, will help bridge experience gaps between elite scientists and the upcoming young scientists.

France Córdova, president emerita of Purdue University and chancellor emerita of the University of California, said it was important for education stakeholders to understand the African education system and development needs before introducing curricula, especially those derived from the West.

Córdova, who is also the director of the US National Science Foundation, called for increased partnerships and scientific research co-funding between Africa and the Global North. She said the US National Science Foundation was co-funding over 400 projects in 43 countries in Africa, and this will be increased to help with the building of science in Africa.

Professor Mary Niane, minister for higher education in Senegal, said Africa still needs many more scientists, especially in the field of engineering, to spur economic growth and sustainable development.

“We need an orientation towards sciences,” said Niane, adding that Senegal aims to produce 2,000 engineers by the year 2020 to help realise the economic goals of the country.

Niane called for the transformation of the governance systems at African universities so that the goals of research are to help find local solutions to local problems. “Education should be at the service of the economy.”

Because of investments in research at institutions of higher education in Senegal, the minister said 80% of the rice consumed in the country was now produced locally. “In the past, we used to import over 50% of rice and groundnuts from China, but investments in university research have helped produce innovations and technologies that have increased our local production,” he said.

On the aspect of e-learning, Niane said Africa has an opportunity to offer leadership by building the necessary infrastructure and enhancing virtual university learning. He added that the continent should build more centres of excellence, especially in universities that can help build the capacity of African scientists and also spur innovation.

Barry Sanders, director of the Institute for Quantum Science and Technology at the Canadian University of Calgary, said it was important to have inter-university partnerships that help to train young scientists in Africa.

In an exclusive interview with University World News, Sanders, who trains masters and PhD students at the University of Rwanda under the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, said that the partnership between the universities of Calgary and Rwanda was providing scholarships to postgraduate students to study mathematical sciences under a programme that allows the two universities to train the students concurrently.

“We shall be visiting more countries in Africa to find out what they have in terms of structures in place and find ways in which we can collaborate and help build the capacity of scientists,” said Sanders.