A check-list for science in Africa
A number of key ideas have emerged from recent debates about Africa's needs for capacity in science and technology. Each should be kept in mind when implementing the conclusions of the G8 summit.
After all the hype and expectation, the final communiqué from last week’s G8 summit meeting of the leaders of the world’s most industrialised countries was something of a damp squib. No bold new ideas or initiatives were announced. And those that were highlighted by the participants – such as the doubling of aid to Africa by the year 2010 – fell short (in this case by two years) of what many had, in their more optimistic moments, been hoping for.
Scientists were among those sharing this disappointment. Their hopes had been raised by, for example, the language in the report published earlier this year by the Commission for Africa. This had spoken in terms of capacity building in science and technology being an "imperative" for the continent, and for a commitment to an extra US$5 billion over the next ten years to rebuild Africa’s universities.
Neither a broad-brush vision, nor detailed funding commitments, surfaced in the final G8 communiqué. Indeed, the word science is only mentioned once – when the leaders endorse the idea of creating centres of excellence "in science and technology institutions" (see 'G8 leaders give indirect boost for science in Africa'). And even the wording here is cautious; no commitment, for example, to the idea of creating new centres of excellence from scratch (i.e. of creating organisations comparable to the Indian institutes of science and technology, as some are currently urging).
Despite this, the language of the final communiqué does offer a solid framework within which new initiatives (and new funding commitments) can now be conceived. Most of what scientists have been demanding is contained implicitly. The challenge ahead is for Africa itself to come up with these initiatives. They should at least be confident that, with a commitment by the G8 leaders both to new funding, and their acknowledgement of the urgency of the continent's needs, initiatives that successfully meet the criteria outlined in the communiqué will find the support that they need.
These criteria can be set out in a checklist against which new proposals should be assessed. In summary – and accepting that such lists can never been exclusive (indeed suggestions for additional items are welcome) – the most important of these seem to be as follows:
1. Think trade, not aid
The main thrust of the recommendations emerging from the G8 summit was that the best way the developed countries can help the developing world is by providing it with the tools and opportunities to trade its way out of poverty.
Straight aid still has an important role to play (for example, in helping to overcome acute food shortages, or addressing neglected diseases). But in the long run, the most important areas for investment in science and technology are those that will help countries build their own bedrock of scientific and technical skills (including expertise in health and agriculture).
2. Think innovation, not science
Too much thinking about 'science for development' remains locked in what is widely referred to as the 'linear model' of technological progress. Within this model, science is seen as the key determining factor, and strong investment in science therefore the key priority.
This view is misleading (see 'Rethinking science aid'). Progress is achieved by investment not in science alone, but in complete 'systems of innovation'. Within these, a strong scientific base is an essential component. But it is not the only – or perhaps even the most important – one.
3. Think globally
The power of modern communications technology is such that any new research-based initiative must be able to locate itself in a global context. One obvious reason is that there is little justification in carrying out research programmes requiring expensive new equipment if similar research is already being carried out elsewhere.
A further reason is that when (and if) international development banks are prepared to invest in science and technology, it is primarily on the basis that such investment is a prerequisite for engagement in the global knowledge economy. And pragmatically, any patents emerging from this research will only be granted to products or processes that can demonstrate novelty at a global level.
4. Think locally
The requirement for a global perspective on research investment must not be allowed to overshadow a complementary requirement that such investment must also take account of local needs and capacities.
The challenge facing universities and research institutions in developing countries is to marry the global and the local (see 'We need to reinvent the African university'). Too often in the past, an 'ivory tower' mentality has prevented this from happening. But the need to reflect domestic needs should become a precondition of both domestic and international support.
5. Think regionally
Many countries in Africa are too small (and too poor) to justify ambitious science and technology policies; attempts to do so in the past have almost invariably ended in failure. But the continent as a whole is too large to justify a continent-wide strategy, in anything but the broadest terms.
The solution is to engage in regional activities, which can range from training programmes to the identification of centres of excellence. The strategy has worked in Europe, through the 'framework' programme of research support of the European Commission. The East African community is beginning to move in this direction, and others would do well to follow (for example, under the encouragement of the New Partnership for Africa's Development).
6. Think relevance
One of the most damaging aspects of the intellectual legacy left by colonialism was the idea that social relevance should not be a requirement of high-level research. Most developed countries have already moved away from this philosophy, not by shifting from basic to applied research, but by framing even basic research programmes within long-term technological perspectives (such as those outlined by 'technology foresight' activities).
That does not mean that so-called 'blue skies' research – that whose relevance is not immediately apparent – should be abandoned. But it does mean that the concept of 'pure science' has become outdated; investments in research, particularly in resource poor countries, can only be justified on the basis of the social benefits they will ultimately bring.
7. Think excellence
But an emphasis on relevance in research must not itself be used to avoid a parallel, and equally essential, emphasis on excellence. Again the challenge – as with the global/local dichotomy – is to find a way of embracing the two simultaneously (and also to emphasise that excellence does not mean exclusivity).
International peer review of research proposals is one way of doing this (as is the emphasis that should continue to be given to research appearing in peer reviewed journals, and the use of citations in awarding further research funding). Building 'networks of excellence' between higher education institutions in the North and South, as recommended in the G8 communiqué, is another. In each case, however, excellence and relevance must go hand-in-hand, not be seen as mutually exclusive.
8. Think gender
As has frequently been said, among Africa's most underutilised resources are the brains and skills of its women. The more that a national, regional or continent-wide strategy for science and technology can tap these resources, the more it is likely to succeed.
Part of the solution lies in getting girls into schools in the first place, then making science education more attractive to them (increasing a sense of relevance is certainly one way of doing so). Equally important is addressing the social and cultural factors that create the 'glass ceiling' that is often so difficult for women to break through, in science as in all other areas of social activity.
9. Think sustainably
It has almost become a cliché to state that any major investment programme must today be conceived within a framework of 'sustainable development'. Nevertheless the concept remains an essential one, particularly if the commitment to sustainability is used sufficiently broadly, and is not restricted to the link between social development and environmental impacts.
For example, investment in infrastructure (and scientific and technological capacity can be included in this category) may not produce immediate benefits, and can be difficult to justify on those grounds. But in the long-term, such investment is essential if a country is to successfully make its way out of poverty through strategies that are ultimately self-sustaining.
10. Think holistically
One of the strongest messages to come through preparations for the G8 summit is the urgent need for more 'joined up thinking' when it comes to the area of science, technology and innovation for development.
This is the case where there is a gap between the emphasis that developed countries place on their domestic investment in science and technology, and their willingness to see similar emphasis within their aid policies (see 'A case for more joined-up thinking'). A different gap can also occur when national or international development agencies pursue their own agendas, at the expense of collaborative efforts.
Other gaps have been identified above. There is the need to bridge the global and the local; to combine a commitment to excellence with a commitment to relevance; and to ensure a well-functioning 'systems' approach to the process of technological innovation that integrates a wide range of essential components.
There are two basic requirements for effective holistic thinking. The first is an enhanced flow of information, which means supporting improved channels of communication. The second is the institutional mechanisms necessary to ensure that effective integration takes place on the ground.
All this means putting Africa in charge of its own development strategy — the basic message of the G8 summit. It also means providing the continent with the tools — including those offered by science and technology — that will allow it to do this successfully. The second message was more muffled; as a major international commitment, it still remains to be demonstrated.