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Scientific research in Africa: More than an economic boost

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Scientific research in Africa: More than an economic boost

8th July 2015

By: In On Africa IOA

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African scientists are getting a big investment injection with the establishment of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA). This new science funding platform was launched in June 2015 under the administration of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) based in Nairobi, Kenya. AESA will make use of a multi-million dollar budget to help manage scientific research on the continent and develop a think tank to direct science research efforts. Early on, the focus will be on health sciences, but the focus will later expand to other areas of scientific research outlined in the African Union (AU) Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa document (STISA 2024).(2)

Although the founding of AESA is certainly good news, a lack of local financial support for AESA is a concern because it is symptomatic of the larger issue: many African countries have insufficient national policy structures in place to support ongoing science research and development. Science advocates, when lobbying for increased science investments, often entice politicians by arguing that funding science leads to economic growth, not just in Africa but in developed economies as well.(3) This argument is probably true in most cases, but it is not the entire story. Beyond economics, the rhetoric for demanding greater science development should be expanded to include cultivating an increasingly science-literate populace, partnering with industrial enterprises, and actively participating in the global scientific community. These are valuable ends in themselves, and the expanded rhetoric may create an even greater impetus for otherwise sceptical African governments to invest in proactive national science policies.

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Science funding shortfalls

In the United States (US), science is big business. Agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Health (NIH), and the Department of Energy (DOE) use federal money to directly fund scientific research at national universities. US research giant Battelle estimates that 2.8% of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is spent on research and development (R&D), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates that 0.8-1.0% of GDP is directed to R&D by the federal government.(4) The financial support provided for science in other research power-houses like the EU and China are similar to the US.

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In Africa, however, the situation is different. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recommends that countries spend 1% of their GDP on R&D, a target endorsed by the AU as well. Only South Africa is committing close to that level of investment — about 0.9% of its GDP. Other Sub-Saharan nations spend less than 0.5% or even nothing at all, leading UNESCO to counsel that they follow South Africa’s lead.(5) Indeed, AESA’s funding comes almost completely from foreign sources: the Wellcome Trust (United Kingdom [UK]), the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (US). The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) is a technical agency of the AU and will contribute US$ 500,000 to AESA, but so far no African governments have made direct contributions.

This lack of spending is perhaps unsurprising as the case for increasing R&D spending in Africa can at times be a hard sell. Malcolm Molyneux, who headed the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, argues: “When a country is manifestly inadequate in every compartment of its responsibilities in education, health and agriculture, it’s difficult to pontificate that more should be spent on research, [especially] when there is a possibility of this being acquired from outside.”(6) But increased spending on R&D is not a matter of taking away from other programmes; rather it is a matter of prioritisation. African countries with large revenues, such as oil-rich Nigeria and Angola, could potentially have robust R&D programmes, if their priorities called for it and if they exercised fiscal prudence. Instead, Nigeria consistently fails to implement its proposed science funding policies and Angola did not even have a dedicated science and technology policy framework until 2011.

Economic enticements

The governments of countries like Nigeria and Angola may not be convinced of the benefits of increased spending on science development, but leaders such as Makhtar Diop, Vice President of the Africa Region at the World Bank, and Luke Mumba, Coordinator of NEPAD’s African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators, are quick to tout the economic advantages of investing in science R&D in the African context.(7) It is by all means encouraging to see Diop attend such important events as the March 2014 Higher Education for Science, Technology and Innovation: Accelerating Africa's Aspirations forum in Kigali, Rwanda, where he makes mainly economic arguments for expanding science funding, as perhaps would be expected from an economist at the World Bank. There are indeed specific studies that indicate a link between science funding and economic growth. A study conducted in South Africa, the Sub-Saharan leader in science R&D investments, concluded specifically that the country’s investments in science R&D had been pivotal in its economic growth over the past two decades.(8)

But even if such support is beneficial to science development, the “more money for science leads to better economies” narrative merits some examination. It is important to note that science does not universally lead to economic expansion in all cases, and when it does, the specific kinds of science investment (basic and fundamental studies versus applied and technological studies) can make a difference, as detailed reports from outside the African context have shown.(9)

To make the case for science funding even stronger, the rhetoric should go beyond the holy grail of economic growth. A report in Science Magazine reminds its readers, in a refreshing way, that “science funding is not primarily a jobs or economic stimulus program,” but rather, it represents the importance of expanding the frontiers of human knowledge.(10)

Science literacy and education

Beyond economics, one sure benefit of increasing science R&D funding is an increase in the scientific literacy of a populace, which is valuable in itself. More funding for African universities from African governments could mean more opportunities for local students to pursue advanced studies – this could lead to an increase in qualified science professionals working in Africa. Furthermore, the university education programmes that will benefit from greater funding are often associated with outreach programmes that are accessible to more people than university education is. One study suggests that visiting outreach science centres boosts not only science literacy, but also understanding of the natural world, curiosity about natural phenomena, and engagement with surroundings.(11) By helping to foster in the populace these characteristics that are desirable not just in scientists but also in active and educated citizens who problem-solve and think critically, the effect increased science R&D funding has on scientific literacy has the potential to be longstanding and significant.

A scientifically-literate citizenship might also more forcefully reject outlandish claims of leaders. The president of The Gambia once claimed to have an herbal remedy for AIDS, while South Africa’s Jacob Zuma once claimed to shower after sex to avoid contracting HIV. A Nigerian science project made international headlines when it claimed to use magnetism to provide evidence to support anti-homosexuality laws. Of course such gaffes are not unique to Africa. The right-wing denial of climate change in the US comes to mind as another case in which a healthy dose of science education would be appropriate for reasons beyond economics.

Industrial innovations both local and international

In addition to the possible merits of broad economic improvement and the general benefits of widespread scientific literacy, increasing science investments in Africa can also respond to specific problems out in the field. Science R&D can contribute solutions to precisely the education, health and agriculture problems development experts search for, especially when directed by local needs. Consider a social science study of effective education techniques, a new vaccine delivery method suitable for isolated villages, a new genetically modified crop with better yields in a given environment, or an engineering advance that supports infrastructure projects. Such innovative science-based projects in Africa are not just pie in the sky. USAID, an organisation that is known for touting its support of local innovation, points to a few specific examples of successful African scientific projects. These include a prescription medication verification and tracking system that enables people to verify whether a drug is genuine or fake by scratching a card on the medication and texting the code that is revealed to a particular number, which has reached over 2 million customers in Ghana, Nigeria and East Africa; inexpensive chlorine dispensers for improved hygiene in Uganda, Kenya and Malawi; and “stickers to encourage passengers to urge bus drivers in Kenya to slow down, thereby reducing traffic accidents and related deaths.”(12)

As research has shown, the local implementation of these kinds of science-based projects on the ground in Africa will be more successful in the long term if they are funded and carried out locally with national support, rather than helicoptered in by well-meaning international organisations.(13) And in cases where there isn’t enough local expertise to accomplish such projects, the mechanisms to develop that expertise deserve at least as much attention as the projects themselves.

Distinct from local innovations, increased science funding may also lure in international industrial partners. Indeed they are already being attracted to Africa. IBM has a laboratory in Kenya, and Philips has an electronics innovation centre there as well. Boeing is funding research at the Kwamme Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana. These kinds of partnerships will only become more and more frequent as Africa takes its science development more seriously. Such industrial partnerships not only address real commercial issues, but also integrate Africa more deeply into the international network of science research and development. This represents progress towards being an equal working partner rather than a donation recipient.

Part of the global science community

International scientific cooperation is not solely dependent on industrial partners, but can also be achieved via collaborative relationships between scientific organisations. Such global collaboration is both a good reason for increased science funding, because it strengthens international friendships, and a good vehicle to advocate for better science funding, because it strengthens African scientific institutions themselves.

In August, the Chemical Society of Nigeria (CSN) will host its 38th annual international conference. This year the event is expected to be particularly large and successful, with joint meetings of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry (FASC) and, for the first time, the American Chemical Society (ACS). The ACS has made reaching out and engaging with the global community an increasing priority. ACS members in Nigeria recently submitted their application for official chapter recognition by the ACS, which is expected to pass through the bureaucratic hoops soon. In the meantime, the ACS will be sending a delegation to Abuja for the event in August and has already opened up access to certain grants for the nascent Nigerian chapter.(14)

These kinds of cross-cultural collaborations are exactly the kind of activities that will serve to strengthen existing African scientific institutions. With such cooperative support, African scientists will be able to put more effective pressure on their lawmakers to increase science funding. If the continent is going to tackle large high-stakes projects, such as the construction of a high-radiation synchrotron (used to generate high-energy x-rays for studying material at the atomic level) or even the launch of a space programme, both cooperative international engagements and increased local funding will be key.(15) After the joint CSN-FASC-ACS meetings, hopefully there will be many more like them to come.

The path to good science

From the establishment of AESA to cross-continental science conferences, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about the state of science research in Africa. Nonetheless, there is still much progress to be made before African science rises to international standards. To get there, local funding needs to step up, both to close funding gaps and to establish robust science funding policies and mechanisms. One way to make this happen may be to expand the conversation about science funding to include considerations beyond macroscopic economic growth indicators. The value of scientific literacy in itself should be recognised, and a renewed focus on specific commercial solutions may also serve the science-funding debate well. AESA openly admits that it will be lobbying African governments hard for complementary funding, and science societies such as FASC should be right up there with AESA for such lobbying.(16) With a vigorous research and development platform for each nation in Africa, there is no limit to what science and technology innovations can achieve in propelling the continent forward.

Written by Philip Rodenbough (1)

Notes:

(1) By Philip Rodenbough. Contact Philip through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s South African office (officesa@consultancyafrica.com). This paper was developed with the assistance of Kyle Hiebert and Feri Gwata. Edited by Liezl Stretton. Web Publications Manager: Claire Furphy.
(2) Conflicting reports on the budget of AESA range from US$ 4.5 million to US$ 70 million.
(3) Lane, N.F., ‘Science is the key to growth’, The New York Times, 28 October 2012, http://www.nytimes.com; ‘African Innovation Outlook II’, NEPAD, 16 May 2014, http://www.nepad.org.
(4) ‘Global R&D funding forecast’, Batelle, 2014, http://www.battelle.org; ‘Historical trends in federal R&D’, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2015, http://www.aaas.org.
(5) ‘UNESCO Science Report’, UNESCO, 2010, http://www.unesco.org.
(6) Nordling, L., ‘African nations vow to support science’, Nature, 23 June 2010, http://www.nature.com.
(7) See for example Diop, M., ‘Op-Ed: Powering science and technology for Africa’s economic transformation’, The World Bank, 20 May 2014, https://www.worldbank.org; and ‘Advancing science, research and innovation in Africa’, NEPAD, http://www.nepad.org.
(8) Dell, S., ‘Study explores positive link between research and economic growth’, University World News, 12 August 2012, http://www.universityworldnews.com.
(9) Macilwain, C., ‘Science economics: What science is really worth’, Nature, 9 June 2010, http://www.nature.com; Jaffe, K., et al., ‘Productivity in physical and chemical science predicts the future economic growth of developing countries better than other popular indices’, PLOS One, 12 June 2013, http://journals.plos.org.
(10) Weinberg, B.A., et al., ‘Science funding and short-term economic activity’, Science, 4 April 2014, http://www.sciencemag.org.
(11) Massarani, L., ‘Can visiting science centres boost science literacy?’, SciDevNet, 27 March 2014, http://allafrica.com.
(12) O’Brien, J., ‘The power of scientific research investment in Africa’, USAID, 21 August 2014, http://blog.usaid.gov.
(13) For example Mugabe, J., ‘Knowledge and innovation for Africa’s development’, World Bank, 2009, http://info.worldbank.org.
(14)Personal communication, McKlmon, R., Marketing Manager, ACS Office of International Activities, 19 May 2015.
(15) Lucibella, M., ‘Planning Africa’s first synchrotron’, APS Physics, April 2015, http://www.aps.org; ‘Africa’s first Moon mission’, Africa2Moon, http://africa2moon.developspacesa.org.
(16) Williams, G., ‘New alliance to help fund and manage Africa’s R&D’, SciDevNet, 5 May 2015, http://www.scidev.net.

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