The poverty of African science

Many actors in the development arena have called for a continental paradigm shift if the African science fairytale has to ricochet from its current trajectory of diminishing paybacks. There is need to build a scientific capacity that reflects the sad realities of Africa, and foster a scientific culture that resonates with our renewed hopes for an African renaissance.

A needs assessment can help inform the skills we need, and in a short and well planned robust program, roll out the critical mass of the relevant person-power required to catapult Africa on the path of sustainable economic development. We cannot prepare this cadre of scientists if our training and research programs remain isolated, adhoc and spurious.

Our sciences must be sound enough to stand the vicissitudes of international scholarship but relevant enough to solve our indigenous problems. We cannot afford space physics before solar energy ‘ it is that simple. We can engage into basic research and algebra, not to prove intellectual arrogance per se, but to pursue the fervent conviction that this virtual knowledge shall one day lift one African from poverty, even if it takes a lifetime.

I am not seeking simple solutions to complex problems. Neither should we solve today’s problems using yesterday’s solutions. The concern, however, is that in our delirium for scientific romanticism; let’s not forget the poor African whose improved livelihood is on hold because of the pending output from our scientists. Let us prioritise African science based on our hierarchy of needs.

In my view, there must be affirmative action towards a home-grown scientific agenda. Our science cannot be relevant abroad, when it is irrelevant at home. Our science cannot be global in detail, without being local in appeal.

We must create a local scientific capability ‘ a juggernaut ‘ that strikes not on the fringes, but at the heart of our underdevelopment. Endowed with vast natural resources, Africa should not be a poor continent. Africa is poor because our science is poor. The starting point, therefore, is to eliminate poverty from our science, before our science can reduce poverty in our land.

What are some of the challenges that keep African science on the back foot?

More than 25.3 million Africans are living with HIV while 2.3 million die of HIV/AIDS each year. By the year 2025, about 80 million Africans would have died from HIV/AIDS. Despite this ghastly picture, the hotbeds of HIV/AIDS research are in America and Europe. Most HIV/AIDS vaccine efforts and treatment formulations are still from outside the continent, even as southern Africa sits at the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

HIV has been said to have originated from Africa, yet the co-discoverers of HIV are in France and the United States of America. While malaria kills at least one million Africans each year, our faint hopes for an effective vaccine are pinned on research results from beyond. Why has African science remained deaf to the cries of millions of our siblings dying of HIV/AIDS and malaria?

Africans are members of the global village who, in terms of information, face global ‘spillage’. By 2001, out of the approximately 816 million people in Africa, only 5 million used the Internet. This disparity could be explained by the simple reason that while ‘cooperatives’ of villagers in the Asian Tigers assemble computers for export to Africa, the African counterparts mend dust roads in food-for-work programs.

There is need to fast-track our scientific enterprise, and make sure our scientists are unambiguous. What is the position of African scientists when the Food and Agriculture Organisation dissuades the use of DDT in agriculture, whilst the World Health Organisation endorses this same dirty dozen for mosquito control?

On the other hand, the continent’s development efforts have failed to make a good showing because the response has often been political. Undoubtedly, political leadership has failed science in most of Africa-sometimes corrupting erudite scientists to become political stooges. The media has not helped matters either, with politicians being lionised in the headlines while inventors, scientists and technologists are largely anonymous.

Although we should equip our research labs and provide more funds for consumables, we cannot wait for scientific solutions to emerge from sophisticated hi-tech laboratories. At the Sokoine University in Tanzania, for example, researchers are using giant African rats to smell out tuberculosis-this will speed treatment in rural settings without laboratories.

The model of technology transfer has not helped Africa. Although African students excel in oversees universities, some of these graduates are caught off-guard by the desperate lack of infrastructure, and sometimes by the sheer irrelevance of their donor-driven training. The ‘sandwich’ model of PhD training is a good start, but we cannot remain in the middle forever- we have to localise skills training in our critical areas of need.

I am not suggesting African scientists should not train overseas, neither should they isolate themselves. On the contrary, the creation of our own centres of excellence in critical research areas will give our scientists the edge to crack local problems and collaborate more effectively with the outside. Our science cannot be competitive overseas when it is weak at home.

What then can be done to usher African science to the tipping edge of development? Governments and an African Union/NEPAD Council of Science could take the lead in the following suggestions:

l Strive for a critical mass of scientists, and create incentives to stem their haemorrhage and brain-drain.

l Build local centres of excellence for research.

l Increase local postgraduate research programs, fellowships, and scholarships.

l Increase research funds, local journals and Internet access.

l Create public-private partnerships to fund training, research and development.

l Twin science and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment; roll out antiretroviral treatment.

l Rework science policies, frameworks and align them to development objectives.

l Harmonise patents and intellectual property laws.

l Increase advocacy for African science and outputs abroad.

l Bridge generation gaps and encompass old and young scientists-this will prepare the young scientists for future leadership roles.

l Limit physical barriers such as age limits for postgraduate studies and regionalism in training programmes.

l Encourage information sharing, meetings, conferences, and media appearances.

l Ensure strict monitoring and evaluation for targets, timeframes and relevance.

It is vital that the scientific landscape in Africa trails the contour lines of the continent’s needs- this is more than the quest for relevance. The question, therefore, is not whether Africa should reject science it does not own. Africa should reject irrelevant and unsustainable science.

The crux of the matter lies in the urgency to grow a cadre of scientists whose skills are diametrically linked to Africa’s development.

Because, our sciences will be meaningless if they cannot be converted into goods and services to roll back the threats of hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and poverty.

Africa must prepare a well thought-out blueprint to re-educate her science-if we fail to prepare, we shall be preparing to fail.

l KC is a lecturer at the University of Namibia. ‘

September 2006
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