What’s holding Africa’s young scientists back?

The continued dependence of African higher education on international science funding, along with insufficient mentoring programmes and the legacy of the brain drain, are among key constraints to the progress of young African scientists, according to a comprehensive new book.

Co-edited by Canadian social scientist Catherine Beaudry (École Polytechnique de Montréal), and Johann Mouton and Heidi Prozesky from the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, The Next Generation of African Scientists is the product of a four-year study into what influences research performance and development of young scientists from more than 50 African countries.

Funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada and the Robert Bosch Foundation of Germany, the study included bibliometric analyses of research records from more than 50 African countries, an online survey with 5,700 respondents, and 259 qualitative interviews. Forty percent of the respondents were based in Southern Africa, 30% in West Africa, 12% in East Africa and 22% in North Africa, while 9% did not live in the same country as their country of nationality.

In an interview to coincide with the launch of the book on 6 November, Mouton, who is also CREST director, said because young scientists were at the heart of innovation and knowledge creation and were a “powerful resource for change and development” in Africa, “understanding and solving the career challenges that they face will enhance the future success of science systems across the continent".

The importance of funding

The lack of funding for research and lack of funding for research equipment are ranked as the biggest challenges to career by respondents. These two factors were followed by time management problems (reflected as a difficulty in balancing work and family demands); lack of mentoring and support; and lack of mobility opportunities.

As the book notes, the prominence of funding in the scientists’ perceptions is unsurprising given the low investment in African science by international standards and the heavy dependence on foreign funding for research. While investments by international governments, donors and development agencies in research in Africa had increased significantly over the past two decades, it said these were “skewed towards health- and agriculture-related areas, and often reflect the priorities of the funders”, the book notes.

Despite these challenges, 55% of the researchers had secured funding in the previous three years but in most cases, older researchers are more likely to be successful. Agricultural sciences received the most funding. Most researchers reported amounts of less than US$100,000, 44% received above US$100,000, and 128 received more than US$1 million. Most of the funding came from international donors, but the South African National Research Foundation was the most cited funding organisation from which the scientists had received grants, followed by the European Union.

Still, accessing funds for research was not easy, according to the respondents.

“You have in South Africa, where you have lots of funding bodies in Africa. In Nigeria here, honestly, it is very, very tough to have such opportunities. Yes, you can have the opportunity to … go and do masters or a PhD, but more often than that it ends at that level,” said a 40-year-old scientist from Nigeria.

A 35-year-old male researcher from Ethiopia said the absence of a track record as a young researcher was not enough to convince funders.

The young researchers recommended that universities and governments look for more funding to boost their careers. Some researchers felt that while they could apply for grants, they could also benefit from understanding the reasons they failed.


Against the backdrop of research which suggests that support by mentors and inclusion in social networks have a greater impact of career success than research success (numbers of publications and citations), the fact that nearly three-quarters of young scientists in the study indicated that a lack of mentoring had a negative impact on their careers is cause for concern.

Furthermore, qualitative data emerging from the study shows that “power differentials” exist within the higher education sector, and that “from the perspective of the young scientists (especially those in West Africa), individuals in senior academic ranks (eg professors) or in senior management positions (eg deans) need to be more approachable, less domineering, and more trusting and encouraging of their younger colleagues’ research aspirations”.

As the book notes, the results point to a greater need for the transfer of “softer skills” – those that would allow young scientists to, for instance, make informed career-related decisions about job opportunities and establishing networks – than the transfer of “harder skills”, such as those involving methods or procedures.

“It should also be recognised, especially by higher education institutions, that many young scientists may be first-generation academics, for whom the expectations and roles associated with their positions are unclear,” the book states.

Teaching and administration

Researchers said they are burdened by large classes, and too many graduates requiring supervision, coupled with administrative demands often not related to their main academic functions.
A 38-year-old female from South Africa said undergraduate teaching comes with a lot of administrative functions.

“Having meetings with your tutors, having moderation meetings with marking assignments and marking tests, setting the exam papers, setting the supplementary exam papers, communicating with the external examiner, it’s sitting through the exam meetings and it’s a whole lot more than just the actual teaching,” she said.

“I’m new here and I’m trying to find my feet here. So, after last year, I would say I was publishing quite well. But now, this year, with teaching and everything, I’ve managed only to complete I think two articles,” said a 42-year-old male researcher.

A respondent from a Maghreb country said that even if the university was willing to subsidise the research of its professors, they are not ready to reduce other workloads.

“The hours of lectures or the administrative charges must remain the same, that is to say, the researchers must always teach the same number of courses, always be present for administrative activities. The research they do must be done in their extra time,” he said.

Dual narrative

The book argues there is a “dual narrative” affecting African scientists: while African researchers are reaping the benefits of increased availability of funding, more opportunities for mobility and increased international collaboration, they are simultaneously held back by the continued legacy of weak institutions, the impact of brain drain and the general lack of established support structures.

The cumulative effect of the funding policies from 1980 to 2000, the huge growth in student enrolments in higher education institutions, combined with continuing political instability in many African countries, created what Mouton (2008) describes as the ‘de-institutionalisation’ of science.

This state of de-institutionalisation is defined by weak scientific institutions, over-reliance on international funding for research and development; individualism in research rather than institution-building; a decline in numbers of doctoral programmes and doctoral students; and weak inscription of science in societies.

In addition to the “colonial science legacies”, political instability and economic decline, the book argues that one of the biggest causes of the decline of African science during the 1980s and 1990s was the erosion of human capital through brain drain, with studies suggesting that up to 30% of African scientists were lost during this period.


Ironically, brain drain is still a concern for African science. As the CREST study reveals, nearly 80% of all young scientists either 'often' or 'sometimes' do consider leaving the country where they work, citing career prospects, academia, and general quality of life, as their first, second and third reasons.

Three quarters are of the opinion that a lack of mobility opportunities may have impacted negatively on their careers.

While the book recommends that mobility of young scientists should be “supported and facilitated” and that young scientists require “more information on mobility opportunities and funding for attending international conferences”, it also notes that mobility can have “unintended” consequences.

“Many non-mobile young scientists are doubly disadvantaged by the permanent relocation of scientists to countries outside Africa, as the resulting erosion of local expertise creates major challenges for those young scientists who remain behind.”

The book therefore also suggests that preventing permanent brain drain “should be a high priority, also because of the ‘brain gain’ that returning researchers offer their African research institutions and countries”.
  • • The Next Generation of Scientists in Africa is published by African Minds and costs ZAR299 (US$21) or can be downloaded for free here. For more information contact François van Schalkwyk,