Support for young African scientists is critical if they are to apply their knowledge to the socioeconomic challenges of the African continent, says Christopher Chetsanga.
Young African scientists need to apply their knowledge to make a difference to the socio-economic challenges of the African continent. But Zimbabwe and most other African countries lack the regulatory environments that would provide the conditions and necessary investments for young scientists to be effectively involved in science and technology for development.
The level of domestic science and technology (S&T) capability determines the success or failure of a given country to benefit from technology transfer. Domestic technological capacity coupled with abundant natural resources is the prescription for automatic global economic domination.
It is those who generate new knowledge, who can patent it and convert it to wealth that will make a difference in a community. Such S&T capabilities will enable a nation to overcome technology barriers. That way young scientists can learn to swim with the technology current rather than watching from the shoreline. But our universities are in danger of functioning as diploma factories rather than knowledge repositories.
National policies for research funding
The low ranking of African scientists in S&T performance is not due to a lack of intelligence. The main reasons are the limited rigor of S&T training at undergraduate and postgraduate levels due to inadequate research funding and infrastructure. It is very important to have national policies that provide for the allocation of reasonable funding for appropriate S&T education and research laboratory infrastructure.
Topping up postgraduate training with postdoctoral advanced research training at other African universities or overseas will give young scientists opportunities for exposure to different technologies and a greater appreciation of the S&T knowledge world.
The risk of some young African postdoctoral scientists going to Europe or North America and not returning home has less negative impact on the home country than the impact of depriving Africa's future S&T development of this postdoctoral international exposure.
African countries can avoid losing their scientists and university lecturers to the diaspora for better paying jobs by improving the employment packages for their scientists.
One hopes to see young African scientists increasingly becoming globally involved in international collaborative research and intellectual partnerships.
Some young African scientists have benefitted from collaborations with scientists in European Union (EU) laboratories under programmes in which African scientists can submit a joint grant proposal with EU scientists to undertake collaborative research.
A good example is the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), who put out a call for 2010 collaborative research proposals on infectious diseases jointly submitted by teams of African and German scientists. The DFG is also offering funding to enable African MSc and PhD students to do part of their research training in Germany.
Areas of Research
It is important for young African scientists to begin by focusing on research areas in agricultural and health sciences as well as industrial fields that have relevance to their country. Local plants and animals are easily accessible for research and the success of improving their growth conditions and yield brings benefits to local communities.
Young scientists should also pursue research on the diseases that threaten so many lives in many African countries such as malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis. Local research funding systems - when available - should give high priority to supporting scientific research work on these diseases.
Many African countries export raw products without adding value to them. Most of the African mineral products are exported in a raw state to countries in Asia, Europe and North America where they provide the feedstock for iron and steel manufacturing industries (automobiles, machinery, etc). Such industries are important hubs of employment in these countries, while African countries have very high rates of unemployment.
Patentable Research Results
Some of the areas with cutting-edge research opportunities include information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology. These knowledge-intensive areas are attracting good research funding in developed countries and these research projects have a good chance of producing patentable results.
S&T knowledge and innovation outputs are the key drivers of productivity, growth and industrial development. Such knowledge strengthens an innovator's capacity to break new ground leading to patent development. African countries rank very low in producing new patentable products.
According to the 2008 World Patent Report of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), only 26 of the 53 countries in Africa filed patents during 2006, 2007 and 2009. Of these, 20 countries filed just 1-4 patents per year.
The only two significant patent filers on the continent were Egypt (408 in 2006, 40 in 2007 and 33 in 2009) and South Africa (874 in 2006, 87 in 2007 and 273 in 2009). And even their patenting record compares poorly with that of countries like Australia (10,806 in 2006), India (8,094 in 2005), Singapore (2,243 in 2006), Thailand (10,221 in 2006), and the USA (390,815 in 2006) to cite only a few.
The low level of innovation capacity in more than 90 per cent of African countries has resulted from their weak domestic S&T knowledge generating capacity.
It is important that young African scientists are equipped with appropriate S&T training and experience to be able to lead Africa out of this stalemate. This requires dynamic systems to be put in place in order to provide relevant S&T knowledge environments. Such provisions will enable these young scientists to acquire greater research and development competences to actively compete with their counterparts in developed countries.
Christopher Chetsanga is a biochemist. He is chairman of the Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education (ZIMCHE) and outgoing president of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences.