At first it seems improbable − a continent overwhelmed by conflict, poverty, hunger and illiteracy becoming the next hub of scientific research and innovation.
But a gathering of world-leading scientists, heads of state, policymakers and business leaders at the Next Einstein Forum in Dakar, Senegal was upbeat.
Africans, they say, are stepping up after decades of academic isolation and inadequate support for science and technology from their leaders.
It seemed all was possible as young, brilliant African scientists and entrepreneurs pitched ideas on how to solve the many challenges facing Africa over three days.
They showcased innovations that harness the power of quantum computing to describe the birth of our space-time and universe to ailment -fighting drones to better therapeutic and diagnostic tools to fight tuberculosis and other HIV-related opportunistic infections.
But they also agreed that before Africa can achieve its full potential it must overcome the barriers holding it back, particularly dismal investment in research and development and limited access to higher education.
Given that all African countries spend less than one per cent of their GDP on research and development it is no wonder that the continent’s contribution to global research output is just one per cent, even though it has 12 per cent of the world’s population.
Worse, only 29 per cent of the one per cent goes to the four fields of science, technology engineering and math (STEM). In contrast, the average share of health sciences research was 45 per cent.
Through the Dakar declaration that emerged from the forum, parties committed to increase Africa’s investment in science and technology to 0.7 per cent of GDP by 2020 and one per cent of GDP by 2025. But as World Bank data analysed by Nation Newsplex shows, that’s just a start.
TRACE AMOUNTS OF RESEARCH
In 2010, the year data is available for most African countries, Israel, which allocates the highest share of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to research worldwide, spent four per cent of its GDP on research, five times the 0.8 per cent allocated by Kenya, South Africa and Morocco.
The three countries allocate the largest proportions of their budget to research in Africa.
While Kenya spends a slightly larger share of its GDP on research than South Africa, that translates to less in actual spending, because South Africa’s economy is much bigger than Kenya’s.
After Israel, the next two top spenders on research and development as a share of GDP around the world were Finland, which spent 3.7 per cent, and South Korea, with 3.5 per cent. In terms of actual funds, however, the United States led the world, spending $410 billion in 2010, compared to Israel, which spent $8.7 billion the same year, according to the OECD.
According to statistics from the World Bank, Africa as a whole accounts for less than one per of the world’s entire expenditure on research and development. In contrast, North America accounts for 37 per cent of total spending, Asia 31 per cent, Europe 27 per cent, and Latin America and the Caribbean three per cent.
Further, the Newsplex review reveals that the continent was ranked last in research publications output per year, accounting for just 2.0 per cent of the world’s total published research in 2010.
“Not much innovation will come from Africa if the continent continues investing less than 0.6 per cent of its GDP in research and development,” said South Africa’s Minister for Science and Technology Naledi Pandor. Her concern was echoed by others throughout the conference.
But there is good news. Sub-Saharan Africa has significantly increased both the quantity and quality of its research output. Between 2003 and 2012, African researchers more than doubled their production of research in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields (STEM), according to the World Bank.
Excluding South Africa, Sub Saharan Africa’s share of global research has increased from 0.44 per cent to 0.72 per cent during the decade examined, a 61 per cent jump.
All regions (East Africa, Southern Africa minus South Africa, and West and Central Africa) improved the relative citation impact of their research, with East Africa and Southern Africa raising their impact above the world average between 2003 and 2012.
Advanced economies are heavily reliant on science, technology engineering and math. Investment in the four fields have seen different countries around the world, especially Asian countries like South Korea, leap forward in terms of development.
Mr Youngah Park, President of Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning, told Newsplex on the final day of the Next Einstein Forum that heavy investment in STEM is one of the main factors driving South Korea’s economic development.
The country whose GDP was comparable to poorer African countries in the 1960s had the 13th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP by 2014. Africa in contrast loses hugely from neglecting these fields, both in revenue and manpower.
On one hand, Africa loses Sh404 billion a year to hiring expatriates to provide STEM services, according to data from the International Organisation for Migration. On the other hand, since 1990, Africa has been losing 20,000 professionals annually, with 300,000 African professionals residing outside Africa.
It costs about Sh4 million to train a doctor in Kenya and about Sh1.5 million to train a university graduate. The cost of a PhD degree is around Sh5 million.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Africa needed to produce 2.5 million new engineers and technicians to be able to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
As one way of stemming brain drain and increasing innovation, scientists at the Forum suggested that Africa should balance between investing in applied research, which is geared at solving existing problems and fundamental research, which is driven by curiosity.
Peter Strohschneider the President of the German Research Foundation said that Germany’s national science strategy looks at research from the perspectives of basic research, applied research and science education.
Given that the promise to increase investment to research and development to one per cent has been made and broken several times by African leaders since the 1980, it was suggested that African scientists and research institutions reach-out to policymakers to convince them of the importance of science.
Dr Rush D. Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, suggested the adaption of a strategy his organisation has used for years. Each year, the association places about 300 fellows (scientists and engineers) in all branches of the US federal government for one year. “The fellows get to contribute their knowledge and analytical skills in the policy realm,” he said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the conference the fourth industrial revolution was on and the pressure was on Africa to catch up and keep pace with the rest of the world so that it not left behind once again. “The share of higher education students enrolled in science and engineering is too low,” he warned.
CRITICAL AGES OF 9 TO 11
There was consensus that the hard work starts with improving accessing to science and technology training at the basic level in order to have a supply of science learners throughout the pipeline of education.
Studies have shown that most people make the decision to pursue science between the ages of 9 and 11. Yet in many Africa countries, pupils who start class drop out before they complete high school. In Kenya and Rwanda, a review of education ministries data shows that less than half of pupils who start class one complete basic (primary and secondary) education.
Different countries including Senegal, Rwanda and South Africa, shared how they were using centres of excellence at both secondary and tertiary levels to train the next generation of scientists and technologists to sustain growth in emerging economies.
The African Institute of Mathematical Studies (AIMS) is also working to improve science education through its centres of excellence in South Africa, Senegal, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, and the Rwandan chapter which is set to open in August. Graduates of AIMS progress to advanced degree programmes at leading institutions around the world
The forum also agreed to prioritise the development of intra-African science partnerships, but emphasized that such partnerships must be on the basis of excellence, sustainability and quality.
Currently, collaborations without a South African or international collaborator make up only two per cent of all East African research output, 2.9 per cent of southern African research output and 0.9 per cent of West and Central African output.
Rwanda will establish the global headquarters for both AIMS and the Next Einstein Forum in Kigali, where the next forum will be held in 2018.