Strengthening African Science

Project Syndicate
Wednesday June 13, 2018
By Esther Ngumbi

Any good leader knows that scientific discovery and innovation fuels
progress, facilitates development, and can help tackle issues like food
insecurity, water shortages, and climate change. And yet most African
governments are failing to fund research and development adequately in
their countries.


URBANA, ILLINOIS – In late March, Africa’s leading scientists, innovators, and policymakers met in Kigali, Rwanda, to brainstorm solutions to an increasingly pressing problem: the low quality of science on the continent.

Any good leader knows
that scientific discovery and innovation fuels progress, facilitates
development, and can help tackle issues like food insecurity, water
shortages, and climate change. And yet most African governments are
failing to fund research and development adequately in their countries.
According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, countries in
Sub-Saharan Africa spend, on average, just 0.5% of GDP on research and development. In the West, the share is closer to 3%.

This disparity
underscores the development challenges that Africans face. Africa is
home to 15% of the world’s population and 5% of its GDP, but accounts
for a paltry 1.3% of total research spending. Moreover, African inventors hold just 0.1% of the world’s patents,
meaning that even when money is spent on science, innovation, and
research, the findings rarely translate into solutions for the
continent’s most immediate challenges.

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To be sure, these
trends are not universal; some African governments are investing heavily
in science-led innovation. In South Africa, for example, authorities
have pledged to double R&D spending by 2020 – to 1.5% of GDP. This follows a 2016 commitment by African heads of state
to increase science and technology budgets to at least 1% of GDP by
2025. A handful of countries – including Kenya, Rwanda, and Senegal –
are working hard to reach this funding threshold.

Africa also benefits
from generous research-related aid and international support. One of the
top donors, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has invested more
than $450 million in African science initiatives over the last decade.
Projects include a $306 million program to boost crop yields and a $62.5 million grant to improve health outcomes.
These and other funding streams have helped African researchers develop
drought-resistant crops, produce vaccines for infectious diseases like Ebola, and expand opportunities for science and technology education.

Unfortunately, many
African governments lack the resources to fund programs that could build
on these gains. Simply put, a new, more collaborative approach to
African science is urgently needed.

Africa’s
leaders have pooled their science resources before. In 2003, the
African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development began
implementing a continent-wide strategy
“to develop and use science and technology for the socioeconomic
transformation of the continent and its integration into the world
economy.” It was an ambitious goal that yielded early results. Between
2005 and 2014, continent-wide spending on R&D increased, while
research output more than doubled in many countries.

Since then, however, progress has stalled. The recent meeting in Rwanda, hosted by President Paul Kagame and organized by the Next Einstein Forum,
was designed to help get the agenda back on track. But summits are only
part of the solution; governments must also commit to improving
research quality, and they can start by focusing attention on three key
areas.

First, Africa’s
leaders must engage with CEOs, philanthropists, and donors who
understand the long-term value of investing in science. Innovation is
expensive, and seed money will be needed to help strengthen the
continent’s scientific capacity.

Second, African
universities and institutions should align their research agendas with
national and regional goals. For example, given that one of Africa’s
most pressing challenges is feeding its growing population, schools specializing in agricultural research should ensure that their work contributes to solutions.

Last but not least,
countries should encourage entrepreneurship within research
organizations. One way to do this is by establishing commercialization
offices, which could help scientists bring their research to market.
Scientists everywhere need help navigating bureaucracy when turning an
idea into a commercial venture, and this process is particularly
challenging in a region where R&D pipelines are in their infancy.

Boosting Africa’s
scientific capabilities will require the continent’s leaders to do more
than ask tough questions at summits; they must also allocate more
funding and forge new partnerships. To overcome Africa’s human
development challenges, African governments must invest in the people
who can overcome them.

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