In January 2007, at the eighth summit of the African Union, 53 heads of state made a commitment to improve our continent’s universities and the quality of education in those universities. Hope and energies were high, but that was two years ago, and substantial progress on this front is lacking. That has been the legacy of Africa’s science initiatives for more than 50 years: lots of talk, little action. This year can be a tipping point in breaking this legacy, but it will take serious and simultaneous effort on at least four fronts.
First, Africa’s key universities must be revitalized. Some of them used to be the best in the developing world, so it is a matter of getting them back on track. We are still expecting financial support from the international community to this end: When the G8 countries met in Scotland in 2005, they discussed an $8 billion, 10-year package for African science and technology development — with $5 billion of which devoted to improving higher education. Progress will be stymied until that funding materializes.
Strengthening Africa’s educational infrastructure will, of course, take time. We must train our next generation of scientific leaders by supporting talented students who cannot find the right facilities to advance their careers. So the second front — and one of our major initiatives at the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) — is providing fellowships for these individuals to study internationally, in scientific hotspots like India, China, and Brazil. We hope that in 2009 we’ll be able to expand our South- South fellowship program to support at least 250 young scientists.
Why not send them to the US or Europe? When Pakistani Nobel physics laureate Abdus Salam founded TWAS 25 years ago, it was in part out of a recognition that collaborations between countries in the global North and global South tend to mostly benefit the former. Students trained abroad often did not come back. So from the start, we wanted South-South relationships to take precedence over North-South ones whenever possible.
Fortunately, we have no lack of outstanding role models there. Just look at the recent explosion in the scientific capacity of China, India, South Korea, and Brazil. The number of articles published in peer-review journals in China rose from 828 in 1990 to more than 80,000 in 2007. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of articles with at least one author from India increased by an incredible 45 percent. The future of Africa lies in the footsteps of these countries.
The third area on which we should focus is also the object of the remaining $3 billion promised from the G8: establishing a number of new “International Centers for Excellence” in Africa. These are places where African scientists work alongside researchers from various parts of world in addressing development-oriented issues that will benefit the region. The centers should, of course, be connected to universities, because educational institutions without research communities are weak, as are research ventures without a constant stream of fresh brainpower.
The fourth front is the strengthening the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC). Africa’s academics have done a lot in the past few years to create linkages with government bodies and with society in general. But they are far from being real advisers to their own governments on critical issues. As it is now, each side blames the other for lack of scientific development. The academics say, “The politicians don’t appreciate science. They’re shortsighted,” while the politicians say, “We don’t see much coming from the scientific community in the way of solving practical problems.” We must find a way to get these parties on the same page.
TWAS is making some headway on this problem by publishing case studies that give concrete examples of scientific research having measurable benefits for society. Using such tools to reach Africa’s finance ministers, for example, is hugely important in convincing politicians of science’s worth.
Our science academies have also been forging much stronger ties to the major political and socio-economic organizations of Africa. The African Union recently appointed a new commissioner, who is already pursuing a more robust policy agenda in science and technology, especially with respect to education. The African Development Bank has begun doing the same, as has the Economic Commission for Africa. But when these three organizations met last March, they realized that they had developed their strategies without conferring with each other at all. So NASAC volunteered to evaluate those strategies and create synergy among them.
In the next months, we hope to come up with a single strategy with concrete objectives and programs designed for each organization. Our initiative on this plan has earned NASAC recognition from policymakers; they now recognize that we are serious about breaking Africa’s legacy of scientific stagnation. This, coupled with the international outreach of TWAS, has given me hope; it no longer sounds naive to say that 2009 is the year we will move beyond rhetoric to action. — Mohamed H.A. Hassan is the executive director of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.
Originally published February 3, 2009