Closing the research gap between Africa and the rest of the world

University of Cape Town scientists work in the Drug Discovery and Development Centre. More needs to be done to keep Africa’s scientists on home ground. Epa/Nic Bothma

A large gap remains in research capacity between Africa and the rest of the world in all scientific disciplines. Addressing the challenges, especially, in the physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sector remains a a major hurdle.

In Africa itself, research is mostly dominated by five nations: Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. It is no surprise that four countries - Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Algeria - are also leading in terms of GDP.

A World Bank report examined the research enterprise in Africa over a decade from 2003 to 2012, comparing it to that of Malaysia and Vietnam. These two countries had a comparable research base to the sub-Saharan Africa regions at the beginning of the period of analysis.

During 2003-12, all three sub Saharan African regions had doubled their yearly research output and had greatly increased both the quantity and quality of research. Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of global research has increased from 0.44% to 0.72% during the decade examined.

But a wide gap in research capacity still exists between sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. The region accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output while being home to 12% of the global population.

It is time to tackle mediocrity in science and technology to forge the next generation of partnerships that can deliver results and lasting outcomes. Improving higher education is key to making Africa a knowledge driven continent.

STEM should be a strategic priority

Sub-Saharan Africa’s output growth has been driven by advances in health sciences research with around a 4% annual growth rate, making up 45% of all research.

Clearly, for sub-Saharan African countries, renewed attention to STEM should become a strategic priority. Research in the physical sciences and STEM makes up only 29% of all research.

By contrast, STEM makes up the largest share of Malaysia and Vietnam’s total output with an average of 68%.

Currently, sub-Saharan Africa relies on overseas collaboration and visiting academics for its research output. This must change.

There is very little regional collaboration among African countries. This too must change.

And greater public support is needed so that the fruits of research and collaboration can help advance sustainable development on the African continent.

Governments must step up to the plate

If Africa is to grasp the science and technology revolution, governments should take the lead in policy formulation.

They should focus on programmes to mobilise science and technology for sustainable development.

This goal becomes crucial since the continent unfortunately remains far from the target set by the Lagos Plan of Action and African Union 2007 initiative calling on African countries to allocate 1% of their GDP to science.

Only Tunisia and South Africa have met or are on track for meeting that target.

With the combined GDP of Africa coming close to US$ 2.6 trillion, the amount that could potentially be allocated for science is US$200 billion.

African countries can no longer depend only on external financiers to fund basic and strategic research on the continent. African governments as well as the private sector should make the firm commitment to invest in science, technology and innovation, particularly if the continent wants to participate actively in the global knowledge economy and cultivate local capacity, including the full participation of women.

Africa must keep its scientists at home

The continent’s collective challenge is to reduce the brain drain, promote circulation and accelerate brain gain. About one-third of qualified scientists and engineers born and trained in developing countries have moved to industrialised countries.

High-level research network, adequate infrastructure facilities and a better integration of basic science and technology within public and private sectors on the continent would contribute to attracting Africans back to their home countries.

And the next generation of partnerships that can deliver results and lasting outcomes needs to be forged, because science is a social enterprise and thrives on collaboration.

Such movement would also help to attract African scientists from around the world to work on the continent and address its challenges.

This is an edited extract from a speech by the president of Mauritius, Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, at the launch of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) in Nairobi, Kenya on September 10.

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