Research and Development: Africa is making progress despite major challenges
A growing number of African countries have realized that, without investment in science and technology, the continent will remain on the sidelines of the global economy and will find it difficult to bring an end to extreme poverty. There has been significant progress in terms of institutions and policy; Africa contributes to the global research and development effort and this contribution is growing. These are some of the findings of the UNESCO Science Report, to be launched at the Organization’s headquarters on 10 November, to coincide with World Science Day. The report presents a review of the state of science and technology in the world, with a chapter devoted to sub-Saharan Africa.
Encouraging signs: In recent years, several countries – including South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Burkina Faso – have adopted laws supporting biotechnology research. Biosciences are included in the four flagship research programmes in the Consolidated Plan of Action for Africa’s Science and Technology (CPA, 2008-2013) adopted by African Ministers of Science and technology in 2005. The CPA is one of the most ambitious strategies of recent years and aims to strengthen Africa’s S&T capacity. In 2008, 14 countries* called on UNESCO to help review their science policy. And, since 2005, six new science academies have been set up in Mozambique, Sudan, Mauritius, Morocco, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, compared to just nine in the entire period from 1902 to 2004.
But development of the continent’s science and technology sector faces a number of challenges, starting with budgetary obstacles. Research and development (R&D) attracts considerably less public investment in sub-Saharan Africa than defence, education or health. The proportion of GDP devoted to R&D averages about 0.3% on the continent, seven times less than that spent by industrialized countries on this sector. South Africa spends most on R&D, with its investment rising from 0.73% in 2001 to 0.94% in 2006 as a proportion of GDP. South Africa also leads in terms of scientific publications, with 46% of the continent’s entire share, far ahead of Nigeria (11.4%) and Kenya (6.6%).
More effort is undoubtedly required in education. Africa’s rate of adult literacy, 62%, is still very low. And higher education in sub-Saharan Africa is reserved for an elite minority, with enrolments not exceeding 4% in 2008 in a quarter of countries in the region. Even where there is high demand, as in Benin, an increase in student enrolments means overflowing classes, a lack of laboratory equipment, underpaid lecturers and too few connections between university research and innovation. And, alongside these low numbers of students in higher education, there is marked inequality between the sexes. The enrolment rate of females in sub-Saharan African universities is one of the lowest in the world. And female students are often confined to disciplines such as the social sciences and health, where job prospects are few.
Brain drain, fostered by the absence of measures to promote research and innovation, the gaps in legislation to protect intellectual property and the low wages earned by scientists, constitutes a major concern. In 2009, at least a third of African scientists or those with engineering degrees were living and working in developed countries. The absence of measures to encourage innovation, gaps in the legislation regarding intellectual property rights and low salaries paid to researchers have all contributed to the brain drain. Uganda is one of the ten countries most affected: in 2007, 36% of university graduates, doctors and leading researchers were living abroad. In an effort to halt this phenomenon, Uganda has taken energetic measures to improve salaries for university researchers and teaching staff. Cameroon, Zambia and Botswana, among others, have also taken measures along the same lines.
According to the Report, some important changes will need to be implemented if the continent is to reach the suggested target of 1000 researchers per million population by 2025. A key element will be the implementation of national science policies based on the industrial and technological needs of each country, say the Report’s authors. Another indispensable element is to increase the funds allocated to R&D and the necessity of rendering science more attractive to pupils in secondary schools and to students. The Report also recommends setting up high-level research and training institutes in crucial fields such as tropical medicine, deforestation, water supply and desertification, in order to train experts in science and technology and to combat the brain drain. It also insists on the need for greater South-South cooperation.
“I am convinced that, more than ever, regional and international scientific cooperation is crucial to addressing the interrelated, complex and growing global challenges with which we are confronted,” says UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, in her Foreword to the Report. “Increasingly, international diplomacy will take the form of science diplomacy in the years to come. In this respect, UNESCO must and will pursue its efforts to strengthen international partnerships and cooperation, in particular South-South cooperation. This science dimension was one of the original reasons for including science in UNESCO’s mandate. It has fundamental significance for UNESCO nowadays, at a time when science has tremendous power to shape the future of humanity and when it no longer makes much sense to design science policy in purely national terms.”
The UNESCO Science Report was written by a team of international experts. It presents a review of global trends in science and technology, based on a wide range of qualitative and quantitative indicators. It is divided into chapters devoted to the various regions, with spotlights on certain individual countries (Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Japan, republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Turkey and USA). The four previous UNESCO science reports were published in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2005.
* Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Malawi, Morocco, Senegal, Swaziland, Togo, Zimbabwe and Zambia.