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It’s time for an African-owned science agenda

Post Summary

  • The last decade has seen a welcome focus on science, technology and innovation in Africa
  • But too many barriers remain and pledges stay unfulfilled, with only 3 countries meeting the promise to invest 1% of GDP in R&D
  • Need for science to become better embedded across Government and all of us working on these issues need to keep the pressure on decision-makers

Science is enjoying a renaissance in Africa. But we need to deepen our commitments and broaden our horizons if our continent is to fulfil its promise.

The last decade has seen a flurry of science-based activity in Africa. Since the first Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology was held in 2003, the continent has both drafted and adopted a Consolidated Plan of Action in 2005 and celebrated the African Year of Science in 2007. Governing bodies have set impressive new targets – including one percent investment of national GDP to research and development – and established new bodies and initiatives to help measure progress, such as the African Innovation Outlook, launched in 2011.

Individual countries are increasingly embracing science and technology as part of their strategies, too. Within days of assuming office in 2010, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan awarded millions of dollars to the Nigerian Academy of Science, and has since continued to position science and technology at the centre of his vision to make Nigeria a ‘top 20 global country by 2020’. Angola, my home and where our flagship PhD Centre of Excellence is based, is an example of the ambition on the continent. In 2011 the Government launched a new science and technology strategy, including plans to integrate science education within the country’s expanding extractives industry. Across Africa, individual research institutes and centres are beginning to make a name for themselves, and scientists are enjoying increasing recognition, most recently with South Africa’s Prof. Wingfield and Egypt’s Prof. Ibrahim, both collecting a cheque for $100,000 as part of African Union Scientific Awards, launched in 2007.

Yet, this activity, while welcome, is at risk of being undermined unless the continent assumes greater responsibility for its own scientific development. We must not allow complacency to creep in or allow statistics the ability to deceive, especially not when we consider the seriousness of the challenges that lay ahead. From food security and water management, to the integration of renewable technology and environmental protection science will impact on every future direction of the continent. But as yet, Africa, and Africans, are not contributing sufficiently to the debate of how we should address these challenges. Taking scientific output as one example, while the numbers of research papers are increasing in real terms, they are still worryingly low. Even including North Africa, the continents scientific publications as a whole barely matched that the Netherlands. Moreover, Africa’s scientific output as a percentage of the global total has actually fallen since a peak in 1987 (now at 1 percent).

Africa faces the very real threat of continuing to fall behind in the global science race. Other regions are grasping their responsibility, namely Latin America and Asia, through ambitious programmes and long-term investment. The Brazilian Government alone, through it’s Scientific Mobility Program, will give 100,000 students the chance to study in world leading institutions before – crucially – returning to complete their degrees and research in their home country. In Asia, substantial reforms and investment in science and technology are showing significant results and are laying the foundation for further future expansion. The latest report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), forecasts that China and India will account for a staggering 40 percent of all young people with a tertiary level education in OECD countries by 2020.

Returning to Africa, the difficulty remains of turning pledges into reality a sustainable reality. Only three countries have met the 1 percent target R&D investment target – Uganda, Malawi and South Africa. Many more remain as far from the target as ever. The promises announced on the international stage have provided a welcome and much needed boost for science on the continent. However, the dangers of superficiality and short-termism threaten the sustained and long-term improvement that is desperately needed.

At a recent talk in London, Amina Mohammed, Ban Ki-Moon’s Special Adviser on Post 2015 planning, pointed to the waves of new scientific institutes already just left ‘ticking over, deteriorating and not engaging’. This is a result of the well-intentioned but patchy and shallow nature of the continent’s engagement on these issues, too often disrupted by political change, the inconsistency of foreign aid and the short-term nature of project funding. Even in Nigeria, a beacon of scientific investment, few scientific institutes are funded ‘beyond 10 or 20 percent of their needs’, Ms Mohammed went on to say. Poorly supported and unengaged institutions can only ever become factories for degrees. We must invest fully, and deeply, in Africa’s academic and scientific environment to develop and maintain new standards of excellence.

At the same time, we must urgently seek to widen our understanding of those we count as part of the ‘scientific community’ in Africa. Science is first and foremost a public good. It must be part of our public narrative, engrained in societies as something that can provide answers for us all, not merely a closed and insular sector outside of every day life. As Senegalese entrepreneurMariéme Jamme commented in a recent interview with us, ‘science is everywhere in the continent, but people don’t have access to it, they don’t understand it…it’s just not something people talk about’. We must seek to change this, and fast, to educate and inspire our booming younger generations to appreciate and value the role of science. All of us, including government (not just the science ministries), the wider education sector, business, NGO groups and civil society, must work together to raise public engagement, access and awareness at all levels.

While Africa deserves praise for the emphasis given to science and technology over the last decade, and many individual researchers and institutes have made enormous strides, the work now begins to really embed quality science on the continent. This means more than just building new facilities and cutting ribbons. If we are to realise the tremendous potential that exists in Africa, and provide talented young people of the continent with the tools and skills they will need to address current and future challenges, there has to be a deeper, more engaged commitment to the significant role science, research, education and academia can play in the future of Africa. The continent must take responsibility for its own scientific development. The processes, technologies, institutions and ideas that make up this development must be led, owned and specific to Africa and we as Africans must embrace them.

Alvaro Sobrinho 2

Dr Alvaro Sobrinho

This article was also posted in the Financial Times This is Africa magazine.

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