Urgent need to combat brain drain

At a recent meeting of retired presidents, coming together in the African Presidential Roundtable, Dr Kenneth Kaunda noted that there are 200 000 African scientists in the United States, more than they are in all the countries of Africa combined. It is a matter of some notoriety that former colonial masters Britain and France are more than happy to staff their medical facilities with the products of African universities and colleges. Action is obviously needed, as the former presidents noted, since appeals for solidarity and the like simply do not wash with many of these highly educated and well paid products of African schools. Or rather, to be more precise, there has to be more than just an appeal to solidarity. One problem, curiously enough, is that there is simply not enough work for many of these graduates at the level they have come to expect. Scientists want to do science and even in America, where salary is thought to be everything, many first class scientists prefer to do their research at a university rather than accept a much-better paying post doing little more than engineering in a major company. African universities offer a few thousand science lectureships, but usually with very high teaching loads and very modest facilities. Other research institutions are few and far between, tend to be under-funded and all too often suffer from too much political direction. The private sector is not a lot better. African companies, with the honourable exception of some mining giants, tend to want to borrow research done elsewhere rather than do their own. Yet there is so much that must be done in Africa if its vast resources, both natural and human, are ever to be unlocked to start that rapid economic growth that is so necessary to move the continent out of poverty. So one solution is to start thinking about how to apply top-level African scientists to African problems. The SADC technology ministers, meeting in Harare recently, saw this as a solvable problem. While no single country, not even South Africa, can fund all the research needed it should be possible to have regional research done at a high level, with costs and benefits shared. Secondly Africa could look at how countries such as China have dealt with precisely this problem. There are a lot of Chinese students and scientists in North America, but they are not there permanently. China is more than happy to send some of its brightest to the US to study and gain experience in the most advanced economy in the world and then it wants them back to develop China. And most do go back. Important work is available, a decent standard of living is guaranteed and proper facilities are offered. While salaries are lower the combination of having at least a comfortable life, plus the lure of patriotism and plus the realisation, and we must not forget idealism, that what they are doing in China is vastly more important that what they were doing in the US. They are helping to build a country, not just make a few businessmen richer. India has chosen a slightly different path. Again it sends out some of its brightest and brings them home, but it is also building up an international reputation for contract research and work. Indian scientists and technologists, working in India and passing on their skills to others, do work for many major western companies. India wins by keeping much of its talent at home, wins because many of these partially foreign funded companies and the like can also apply their research to Indian problems, and because it can build up its technical manpower in a national environment. Africa needs to follow both routes.

April 2006
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