Natural resources a ‘curse’ for the research sector – Study

As natural resources in Africa such as minerals, forests and oil, delay more scientific performance, African countries should develop strategies to transfer resources from the extractive sectors to the research sector which requires equipping universities with the appropriate infrastructure and regulating the research sector.

This is the main message that emerged from a study titled, ‘Are natural resources a blessing or a curse for scientific and technical research in Africa?’, published in the August 2023 issue of Resources Policy.

The article was written by Henri Atangana Ondoa and Berthe Nyebe Andela from the University of Yaoundé II in Cameroon.

“There is no work on the relationship between natural resource dependence and scientific performance … To the best of our knowledge, this study provides the first empirical investigation of the effect of natural resources on scientific research in Africa,” the authors state.

Besides assessing the effect of natural resource rents on scientific and technical research in 54 African countries during the period 2000-20 using World Bank data, the study also identified the type of natural resources that are more detrimental to scientific outcomes in Africa.

Countries poor in resources publish more

Scientific and technical research are the two components of research and development (R&D) measured by the number of articles published in scientific and engineering journals per 1,000 inhabitants of a country.

The study showed that African countries that publish more, such as South Africa, Tunisia and Morocco, are not rich in natural resources but have the highest investment in R&D in terms of expenditure and human resource involvement in the research sector.

On the other hand, Angola, and Chad are rich in natural resources but publish few scientific articles each year.

Thus, African countries that publish more research scientific articles are not rich in natural resources, the study pointed out. This is because citizens of resource-rich African countries are not motivated to carry out research activity because of the high opportunity cost of research in these countries, the authors explained.

High rates of adult illiteracy

The natural resources that delay scientific performance more are minerals, forests and oil.

Because the exploitation of the forest or minerals is sometimes intensive in unskilled labour, forestry and mining exploitation can reduce the school attendance rate and the number of researchers in natural resources-rich African countries, the study explained. Natural resource dependence can reduce incentives to accumulate human capital due to high levels of non-wage income or resource-based wages.

Many countries rich in natural resources such as minerals, oil, or forestry appear to have much lower enrolment rates and high rates of adult illiteracy, and low completion rates, according to the study.

“The variation in the rates of extraction and the fluctuations in commodity prices such as timber or oil render government revenues in resource-dependent countries highly volatile. This volatility may influence public spending on research, as it complicates long-term planning,” the study added.

Rents not used for research

The study also showed that the number of scientific articles published decreases with the natural resource rent, indicating that “the natural resource rents delay the development of research in Africa”.

For example, South Africa derives less than 10% of its GDP from the exploitation of natural resources but is among the countries that publish more scientific articles in Africa. The same observation is valid for Tunisia and Egypt.

This is because, in Africa, “natural resource rents are often used to finance personnel costs in all sectors and not for investment in research. As a result, wages in the research sector may increase when resource rents are high, but other research inputs such as libraries and laboratories are lacking”, which slows down research.

“The allocation of R&D subsidies financed by natural resource rents might have the opposite outcome, reducing private investments in R&D because private R&D investment is likely to grow only if recipients face more binding resource constraints that impede investment in innovation,” the authors argue.

Transfer strategies recommended

The study also shows that scientific research increases when GDP per capita rises or when the country has infrastructure and strong institutions.

“GDP per capita is endogenous because its growth increases productivity in the research sector, which, in turn, increases GDP growth. Any growth in productivity in the research sector will lead to similar growth in the production section,” the authors explain.

The study recommends that African countries develop strategies that ensure the transfer of resources from the extractive sector to the research sector. “This transfer of resources requires the existence of good institutions, such as the definition, the protection of property rights, and the regulation of the research sector,” the study notes.

It also requires well-trained human capital for helping to identify, assimilate, apply and discover new research techniques. “For instance, African countries need to equip their universities with appropriate infrastructure and define good laws that regulate the promotion of teachers,” the authors point out.

Private-sector involvement suggested

The private sector should also be included as a development partner because the extractive industry might consider increasing research funding through corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The study also emphasises the significance of the sustainable management of natural resource wealth in Africa.

“The importance of scientific research in poor countries comes from the idea that the rents of natural resources could be utilised to finance scientific research and improve the living conditions of the populations through the appropriate utilisation of the rents of natural resources,” the study states.

“The pressing need to diversify economies and fight poverty in many African countries which are rich in natural resources such as oil, timber, minerals and diamonds, necessitates a transfer of resources from the extractive sectors to the research sectors.”