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Building Africa's Scientific Infrastructure

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Panelists

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.”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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