What skills do the scientists of tomorrow need?

As the world’s economies and societies become increasingly dependent on knowledge production and innovation, and as development becomes increasingly contingent upon the sustainable use of natural resources, the need for effective leadership in science and research has never been greater. What skills and capacities do the scientists of tomorrow actually need to lead?

The Next Einstein Forum held in Kigali, Rwanda from 26-28 March which was attended by hundreds of young scientists from around the world, provided an ideal platform to discuss the perfect skill box of the future scientist, particularly those emanating from Africa.

Session chair Dr Katrin Rehak-Nitsche, senior vice president of science and research, Robert Bosch Stiftung, pointed out that researchers in both the sciences and humanities will be required to address challenges presented by developments such as climate change, the digital revolution and massive demands for education.

“Africa and the rest of the world need inspiring young leaders that catalyse transformation and manage change,” Rehak-Nitsche said.

According to Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the president of the European Research Council, empowering the next generation of researchers to enable them to become leaders was critical. He said young researchers needed to be supported both in terms of structural measures and personal skills development.

He said building leadership capacity among young scientists was possibly more difficult today than it was in the past, with young researchers having to prove themselves much more and wait much longer to get a decent job.

He also said institutions carried some responsibility to "make it possible to lead" and offer a broad range of mentors, rather than a single researcher. Trainees should be prepared to share and defend their own work and experiences. This would help them not only to learn how to communicate, but would prepare them to accept criticism from members of their generation.

Post-doctoral training

Bourguignon said the post-doctoral period was critical and needed to be long enough to give researchers the chance to develop a personal research strategy and pursue quality research.

“It’s extremely important that institutions show some flexibility and allow people the time and space to realise their goals.”

Although a personal vision was important, he said researchers should avoid being trapped in an excessively narrow field of study. “In order to be a leader, you must be exposed to contacts outside your own domain of expertise,” he said.

Last year, the European Research Council signed 1,000 five-year contracts with researchers under 40. Bourguignon said the council gave ‘full responsibility’ to the researchers.

“We are quite tough on institutes to recognise the intellectual property rights of researchers,” he said.

South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said governments in Africa are supporting young scientists but much more needs to be done in mentoring, scholarships and support to have trained teachers.

Dr Tom Kariuki, director of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, an initiative launched in 2015 by the African Academy of Sciences and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) agency, listed ‘ethical behaviour’ and accountability among the qualities required of science leaders.

“We want to have good collaborations and equal partnerships, and leaders should embody ethical behaviour,” he said.

According to Professor Tumani Corrah, director of the African Research Excellence Fund (AREF), African research capacity in the last two decades had focused too heavily on technical matters, such as clinical trials and data collection. “The majority of research was done by doers rather than thinkers,” he said.

Corrah, who is also emeritus director of the Medical Research Council (MRC) in The Gambia, said an MRC study in 2015 on funding research capacity development in Africa found that 80% of funds went to PhD training which meant there was insufficient funding for postdoctoral skills training.

Skills flight

“This meant that some discouraged bright young scientists left the continent for greener pastures,” he said.

Corrah said with funds from Robert Bosch, the AREF is now focusing on leadership development for rising stars in an attempt to retain more researchers in Africa.

The programme has six learning themes: effective research, compelling applicants, influential researchers, researcher as a manager, responsible researcher and researcher as a leader.

“With that learning framework in mind, we hope to produce graduates who have personal planning skills, principled leadership skills and are able to bring value to research collaborations,” said Corrah.

Professor Howard Alper, chair of the canvassing committee of the Global Excellence Initiative and distinguished professor at the University of Ottawa, suggested that African governments consider the establishment of more research chairs in order to encourage members of the diaspora to return to Africa. He said the research chair programme introduced in Canada in 2000 has been successful. Another idea would be to encourage short- to medium-term lecturer exchanges, he said.