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An 'UnConference' has encouraged a different take on the issues behind the continent's path to scientific autonomy.
Ask the question: 'How can Africa achieve scientific independence?' at your next dinner party and you're likely to elicit some frowns, head scratching, eyebrow twitching and beard stroking from your guests.

You can just picture it — such a question is likely to generate further questions: 'what do you mean by scientific?', from the scientists, 'what do you mean by independence?', from the development community, and 'who's asking?', from the investigative journalists.

But rephrase the question as: 'Africa's scientific independence: how do we get there?', and present it as the strapline for an 'UnConference' to a more diverse audience, and things shape up differently. I discovered this last week in London, where just such an event was hosted by the Planet Earth Institute, an NGO working for Africa's scientific independence.

An UnConference

But before we go any further, let's make sure that we're all on the same page. What exactly is an 'UnConference'?

To answer this we must travel back in time to Victorian England, make the acquaintance of Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) and turn to his charming book Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

One of the things Alice found was a grotesque humanoid egg called Humpty Dumpty, who introduced her to the concept of the UnBirthday, an event that can be celebrated on any day that isn't the person's birthday. An UnConference is the same idea: it has all the hallmarks of a conference, such as a chair and a panel, but is much more informal — it is shaped by the audience, not the panellists.

Like the UnBirthday, the UnConference is a neologism — in short, a new word. Neologisms are tolerated from children but, among adults, can suggest a psychiatric disorder.

So is an 'UnConference' an appropriate term for a discussion forum that is asking a serious and sober question? I'd say yes — this UnConference allowed participants to play with and, by the end, to engage with the question: 'Africa's scientific independence: how do we get there?'.

Words and ideas floated from distinguished panellists, while the charismatic compering of Lord Paul Boateng — a trustee of the Planet Earth Institute and leading figure on Africa and its development — kept engagement at simmering point.

As the UnConference really got going, flipcharts appeared and small breakout groups were soon engaging with each other and with the topic at hand.

It was an engagement shot through with inconclusion, but also with significant revelations.

A few inconclusions

So, what were those areas of inconclusion?

One related to women's role in African science. A panellist declared that women were the answer to Africa's scientific independence but this was not elaborated on. Perhaps as a result, women were not highlighted in the event's roundup.

This is a pity — not only because it misses out on half the potential brainpower available for science, but also because women could bring new skills to the table.

In my experience of African markets, for example, it is invariably women who are the sellers and negotiators, driving hard bargains with gusto. If African women excel in this kind of activity in the marketplace, why not in the academic arena? One criticism participants levelled at African scientists was that they were poor negotiators.

Another point that struck me relates to education, seen by some as the key to scientific independence. But while there was a call to intensify education at the primary level, this was countered by Lord Boateng, who pointed out that dropping tertiary education from the development agenda was the real stumbling block to moving African science forward.

“It's about saying that Africa needs to set its own developmental priorities both now and for the post-2015 agenda, and that science technology and innovation are part of that.”

Lord Boateng

Higher education has become neglected, he said, referring to the 85 per cent reduction in per capita spending on it over the past two decades. "It's holding back the struggle for growth and development, and we're looking to redress that by creating productive partnerships."

That, arguably, is one thing the UnConference set out to do. But why should an emphasis on primary education be at the expense of an emphasis on tertiary education? No answer was forthcoming. Indeed, the question wasn't even asked.

China's role

Finally, there was the question of China — "the elephant in the room", as Phil Bowman, an electronics engineer from University College London, put it to me after the morning session. "You can't begin to answer the question of Africa's scientific independence without considering China," he said.

This is where the UnConference came into its own. A discussion group set up by Bowman asked whether China really is the prime extractor of resources from Africa that many believe.

Lord Boateng then posed two questions: "Which country extracts most from Africa?" and "Which country invests most in Africa?" The answer to the first question was the United States; and to the second, China.

But should Africa follow China's path of mass industrialisation with its associated pollution? I hope not.

Moment of revelation

I mentioned that the UnConference had its moments of revelation too. For me, the most important was an explanation of the term 'scientific independence'.

It was Lord Boateng who enlightened me. "The call for independence is one that seeks to counter dependency," he said.

"Africa for too long in too many areas has been dependent upon the rest of the world," added Boateng. "This [meeting] is Africa giving notice of its determination to build on its political independence, and scientific independence is part of its economic emancipation.

"It's about saying that Africa needs to set its own developmental priorities both now and for the post-2015 agenda, and that science technology and innovation are part of that."

As I made my way home, I kept turning Lord Boateng's final words around in my mind: "Only the best is good enough for Africa … ".

Perhaps it takes an UnConference to turn things on their head sufficiently to understand what is really at the heart of the question: 'Africa's scientific independence: how do we get there?'
Kaz Janowski
Editor, SciDev.Net

SciDev.Net is a media partner for the UnConference 'Africa’s Scientific Independence: how do we get there?'

The PEI’s UnConference in London on 11th July 2013 was opened with a video presentation calling on Africa’s scientific independence: