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Building Africa’s Scientific Infrastructure

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Image courtesy of PEI

Africa has the lowest scientific output of any continent, despite being the second most populous. Combined, its 54 nations generate approximately the same amount of scientific research as the Netherlands.

On Tuesday, the Planet Earth Institute, an international NGO and charity working for the scientific independence of Africa, sponsored a panel discussion at the office of the Permanent Observer Mission of the African Union to the United Nations on how African countries can work with businesses to make themselves more competitive in the fields of science, technology and engineering.

Science research and education may seem like a remote concern for a continent plagued by extreme poverty, armed conflict and political instability. As the global economy becomes increasingly knowledge-driven, African countries are realizing that without investing in scientific research and infrastructure, reversing poverty and achieving economic growth will be unachievable goals. In an attempt to address these problems, The African Union has pledged to devote more resources to science and technology as a means to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals by the target date of 2015.

One of the biggest problems African countries face in terms of boosting scientific output is that they have very few scientists. Only about 4 percent of college-aged individuals enter higher education, and, for those who do, universities are often overcrowded, lack basic laboratory equipment and supplies, and have few connections with other institutes of higher learning – limiting the collaborations central to scientific research. Andrea Johnson from Carnegie Corporation noted at the forum that students who do graduate from a university are often uncompetitive with other graduates around the globe.

The continent also suffers from extreme brain drain. In 2009, approximately one third of all African scientists or people with engineering degrees were working and living abroad.

A few bright spots exist. Over the past decade, many African states have made strides in increasing the number of pupils enrolled in primary school. And thousands of radio telescopes are currently being built across Botswana, Ghana, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia as a part of the Square Kilometer Array, a project that may herald a renaissance in African astronomy.

Still, the proportion of GDP that sub-Saharan African countries devote to scientific research and development averages around 0.3 percent. International development experts say that one of the keys to getting African countries to invest more in science may be to establish partnerships with businesses that stand to gain from having local workforces trained in science and technology.

Some of those at the forum shared their views:

  • Phillip Griffiths, Chair of the Science Initiative Group, an international team of scientists working to promote science in developing countries, said that business should collaborate with universities to revamp their curriculums and make them more relevant to local economies.
  • David Fairburn-Day, from Promethean Partners, said that businesses would like a unified regional rather than a country-by-country approach to developing regulations on imports, exports and other matters.
  • Sajitha Bashir, from the World Bank, suggested developing a handful of universities into regional centers of excellence as a way to build capacity for delivering high-quality education in Africa.
  • Multiple participants, including panelist Amina Mohammed, the special advisor on post-2015 development planning to the UN Secretary-General, said that businesses should be invited to policy discussions from the beginning rather than after goals have been set.
  • Panelists also addressed the need to close the gender gap in education, which grows as students move from primary school to universities. Women account for roughly 20 percent of the researchers in the continent, and are often restricted to “feminine” disciplines, such as the humanities and social sciences.

Participants frequently stressed that one approach would not suit the needs of every country—and efforts should be made to identify small, regional programs that are working and scale them up. One program called RISE, Regional Initiative in Science and Education, is a major project of Griffith’s Science Initiative Group, which trains science faculty and encourages the pooling of mentors, resources and research opportunities across multiple institutions.

Scientific independence means that “African problems can be solved by African solutions,” PEI Chairman Álvaro Sobrinho said in his remarks. “While there is an urgency, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to fail,’’ Mohammed added. “There are no quick fixes in any of these cases, but there are great dividends in the longer run for development and for peace.”

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  1. 1. rkipling 9:32 pm 05/23/2014

    Ms. Jacobson,

    It would be interesting to know your thoughts on this initiative’s potential for success. Is there sufficient political stability for this to take hold anywhere except South Africa?

    I worked with a PhD from Ghana about 25 years ago. His family in Ghana was relatively wealthy, but he told me he had no intention of ever going back. His walk was distinctive. After I got to know him better, he explained that early on (I don’t recall if he said at what age.) certain ligaments in his knees were severed to assure that he could not do manual labor. Perhaps his mutilation colored his view of Africa? Whatever his reasons, he did not have a positive view of the culture.

    Also, how much of the problem with educating female scientists in Africa is due to the Islamic fundamentalist’s belief that females should not be educated?

    Anything more you could add to this topic would be appreciated.

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  2. 2. DrAzizi15 2:06 am 05/24/2014

    “African problems can be solved by African solutions,” is a cozy word often used by politicians.
    There is no such a recipe that we can use universally to solve all of our problems.
    I agree that we need to find a right solution but cannot wait forever for a perfect solution.
    I also agree, whatever the solution should be implemented by Africans.
    In my years of training my fellow Africans, I noticed that just class lecturing is not enough; some implementation program should follow afterward. When properly trained, the brilliance of African scientist will surprise you.

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  3. 3. rkipling 11:24 am 05/24/2014


    “When properly trained, the brilliance of African scientist(s) will surprise you.” I find that a curious statement.

    My expectation is that the vast majority of readers here would also find your statement odd. Those with scientific curiosity are generally of the understanding that people are people. Most probably, we are all Africans if we trace back 60,000 to 150,000 years. Genetically are not humans more uniform than other species? That’s what I read. So, I doubt many of us would find it at all astonishing when an African scientist displays brilliance. We would only see a brilliant scientist.

    Would you share your insights on what accounts for the low scientific output?

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  4. 4. singing flea 5:49 pm 05/24/2014

    I think it has a lot to do with evolutionary factors. People in the equatorial regions need to rely on brawn and physical stamina to survive in a jungle environment. Science in a low priority. People in the higher latitudes needed scientific solutions to overcome the harsh winters. If you believe in evolution you have to believe that different regions produce different cultural attributes. This is not to say one race is more intelligent than another, but certainly have they different priorities. Being well educated is the key to success in the high latitudes, and they work hard at that. In Africa, the emphasis is on physical fitness and endurance. It’s really just a matter of priorities. In the Polynesian culture neither is a real priority because life is easy. The people tend get fat and complacent compared to other cultures. Middle Easterners grow up in a culture of war. They make good warriors. If you understand the differences, you can learn from them all without prejudice.

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  5. 5. larkalt 10:24 am 05/25/2014

    “When properly trained, the brilliance of African scientist will surprise you.”
    Please do surprise us :) In the USA we need very badly to get beyond the stereotypes.

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  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:09 am 05/26/2014

    I hoped for discussion of the biggest problem: that corruption and political instability in Africa will destroy any effort and money put into science. The same as some non-African countries, btw.

    In any case, I find fascinating the idea that technology of 20. century agriculture could be used to create high-yield varieties of African crops and livestock, much like species used in N America and Europe.

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  7. 7. sahalu 6:46 pm 05/27/2014

    Excellent Blog Ms. Jacobson.

    I would also like to echo what DrAzizi15 said on the so called “African problems can be solved by African solutions,” statement attributed to Amina Mohammed. This statement by Amina Mohammed, who I assume is an African technocrat, on the surface sounds innocuous, but it is emblematic of a more serious problem – a world view based on ideology not science and technology. Problems are problems regardless of geographical location. It is a question of using appropriate solutions, whether we are talking about a problem in the U.S, India, China, Nigeria or Sweden. Talking about African solutions is a waste of valuable everyone’s time.

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  8. 8. hkraznodar 5:26 pm 06/6/2014

    @singing flea: Your comment makes assumptions not based in science. The genetic differences between people of various geographic locations are primarily cosmetic or related to light exposure levels and have next to nothing to do with intelligence. The conditions you ascribe to the various regions of Earth only apply over very recent time periods that are far too short for evolution to occur.

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  9. 9. hkraznodar 5:35 pm 06/6/2014

    @Jerzy v. 3.0: Modern agriculture from the 20th century was very widely applied to African agriculture. The result was massive collapse in food production levels.

    Interestingly enough, as more areas are abandoning the western agriculture methods and reverting back to the horticultural heritage of traditional African food crop production, productivity levels are increasing rapidly in those areas.

    Some parts of Africa are well suited to western style agriculture but much of it is not. Better to carefully examine all of the options. Bee colony collapse disorder isn’t fun and most row crops are only health as a supplement to healthy vegetables and fruit.

    Life expectancies in Africa are lagging for many reasons but starvation and malnutrition are a big factor. Forcing Africans into bad diets won’t really help much.

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  10. 10. eqariu 12:59 pm 09/15/2014

    Much of scientific infrastructure is connected to other infrastructure that we know – roads, energy etc. In fact, much poverty around Africa is to be blamed on lack of good visible infrastructure- imagine access to electricity/power linked to percentage of literacy? true – but that is to change with the massive infrastructure projects (aggressive) being rolled out across Africa –

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