A popular principle in policymaking circles is that investment in science, technology and innovation (STI) will translate into improved national competitiveness and, ultimately, development success.
This discourse, often illustrated by examples from countries such as Finland and South Korea, has become popular in developing countries’ circles. In Africa it has sparked a multitude of programmes to boost science and innovation activities. This very organisation, SciDev.Net, is a product of the push.
Alongside this discourse, there have been calls for statistics on science and innovation activities on the continent to track countries’ performance over time. In April this year, the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) Initiative, spearheaded by the New Partnership for Africa's Development, produced its second African Innovation Outlook (AIO).
This second AIO is a step forward from the first, published in May 2011, in terms of the quantity, and to some extent the quality, of the data. But the report does not provide any evidence to support or contest the assertion that investments in African science, technology and innovation have had a noticeable effect on development.
“But despite the increased number of countries, the presence of suspect reporting and a continuing propensity to provide incomplete data make the second report difficult to draw conclusions from.”
The third phase of ASTII is due to start later this month, leading up to a third African Innovation Outlook before 2019, ASTII officials say. The third AIO — and the discussion around its findings —should tackle the question of whether increased investments in African STI have led to development outcomes. The discussion then needs to feed into science and technology policymaking on the continent
Too soon to tell
In all fairness, after only two rounds of African innovation surveys it is probably too early to try to answer the question ‘does the data support the assertion that STI boosts development?’ Neither of the two surveys included every African country. The first only looked at 19 countries, and of these many failed to provide complete datasets.
With 35 participating countries, the second AIO involved more than half of the continent’s nations. But despite the increased number of countries, the presence of suspect reporting and a continuing propensity to provide incomplete data make the second report difficult to draw conclusions from.
The authors are aware of these shortcomings, and caution readers not to read too much into some of the data. For instance, they warn readers about the finding that Kenya’s total expenditure on research and development (R&D) more than doubled in the three years between the first and second AIO.
They also caution against reading too much into Uganda’s R&D expenditure going down by a third between the first and second AIOs. According to the data, this is due to a drop in public R&D funding.
But there is little evidence from Ugandan science to support this explanation. It might equally be due to over-reporting of the public funding levels in the first AIO, which had Uganda’s total R&D expenditure as over one per cent of GDP — a claim that several informed observers doubted at the time.
In fact, as far as robust findings go, the second AIO tells us little that we didn’t already know.
For instance, most African countries spend less on R&D than the continent’s target of one per cent of their gross domestic products. Industrial R&D spending is very low. Egypt, Kenya and South Africa have the highest proportion of R&D personnel per million inhabitants.  Most of Africa’s researchers work in the higher education sector.
“STI most likely plays a part in Africa’s development. But should it play the lead role? That’s yet to be ascertained, and future AIOs could provide essential clues in the investigation.”
There are also signs, which were present in the last AIO, that the links between R&D and innovation are sometimes weak or nonexistent. Universities rank low on the list of places where firms seek new ideas. Rather, businesses take a lead from their clients, suppliers or competitors when developing their products and services.
Many firms also report being innovative without formal investments in R&D, suggesting that countries might want to separate their innovation and R&D policies from each other.
Although the second AIO doesn’t add to what we already know, its mere existence is a triumph. The fact that 35 countries went through the hassle of engaging with the process is encouraging, and bodes well for future sections of the report.
In future AIOs, the quality of the data will doubtless improve.
But with better data, it will become imperative for those handling the AIO to begin to probe the key question mentioned at the beginning of this column: Does investment in science and technology, in an African setting, result in favourable development outcomes?
After all, there are many things to spend money on in Africa — roads, hospitals, primary schools and defence. STI most likely plays a part in Africa’s development. But should it play the lead role? That’s yet to be ascertained, and future AIOs could provide essential clues in the investigation.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa,specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
A version of this story was originally published on the Sub-Saharan Africa edition.