Climate science: Getting African researchers involved

Youba Sokona Montreal 2
Copyright: CCMLCIP

Speed read

  • African researchers face linguistic and other barriers
  • IPCC keen to have their input in climate change research
  • Capacity-building initiatives underway, targeting young scientists

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) met for its 46th session in Montreal, Canada, from September 6-10. It reached an agreement on an outline of contributions from its three working groups to the Sixth Assessment Report, which is due to be published in 2022. It will now recruit a team of experts and authors responsible for producing the document.

It is in this context that the IPCC’s vice-president, Youba Sokona, who comes from Mali, is calling on young African researchers and scientists to get involved in the Panel’s work on climate change.

SciDev.Net caught up with Sokona at the IPCC session in Montreal. In this interview, he talks about initiatives, launched with partners, which aim at breaking down the barriers preventing young African researchers and scientists — in particular those from Francophone Africa — from playing a full role in the Panel’s agenda.

What do you make of African responses to climate change?

There is a great deal of awareness and a strong political commitment when it comes to issues around global warming. What’s more, as far as the heads of state are concerned, they meet as part of a committee on climate change, which is currently chaired by the President of Gabon. An African initiative on renewable energy, launched and led by the heads of state, was also planned and developed ahead of the Paris COP 21 (the UN climate summit). So, the political will is there, and there is increasing interest in issues surrounding climate change. Obviously, if we want this growing mobilisation to yield results, we need the scientific and technological community to play a full part in addressing these questions. At the moment, their response does not do justice to the nature of the problem.

What is behind this lack of engagement by the African scientific community?

One of the problems is that work done for the IPPC is carried out on a voluntary basis. It is unpaid. And it requires a huge amount of time, effort and engagement. In practical terms, it means that you can, for instance, be asked to read through 3,000 or 4,000 pages of documents and review comments. But as we know, African researchers and scientists are usually not in a position to make this sort of time commitment. It’s different for their colleagues in industrialised and emerging countries whose governments allocate resources to them when they are appointed. Currently, all of the work that I do for the IPCC is done in my spare time, in addition to the work I am paid to do. I’m not remunerated, and I can’t draw on any resources. Representatives of Canada, the USA, Germany, France and China are appointed by their governments and the hours they spend contributing to IPCC activities count as work. That’s usually not the case for Africans.

If we want this growing mobilisation to yield results, we need the scientific and technological community to play a full part in addressing these questions

Youba Sokona

What can be done to change this?

We are currently working on a project which I hope we will receive funding for. I am an honorary professor at University College London (UCL) in the UK. Along with colleagues at UCL, I have launched an initiative to encourage greater involvement of African scientists in the work of the IPCC. It aims to engage them, to offer guidance and support, and provide them with a substantial amount of assistance. We have applied to a number of institutions for funding.

The programme is aimed first and foremost at young African scientists. If we are successful in getting it off the ground, I think it will serve to raise their awareness, offer them support, and give them a better understanding of the field. They are usually not integrated into multi-national research groups, which results in their contribution being relatively marginal. The aim of this programme is to build capacity, raise awareness, and encourage African scientists to support the work of the IPCC.

What would they learn in practical terms?

First, we would discuss the workings of the IPCC — how we compile evidence and analyse it. We would explain how they can become authors, coordinating authors, contributors or reviewers of documents. We would also make an online course available for those unable to attend training seminars.

At what stage are you with this now?

We have already received a small amount of funding to develop a programme of online courses. As for the rest, we are reliant on the goodwill of funders. We have submitted a bid to the AfDB (African Development Bank) in response to a call for proposals. We hope that we will obtain some funds soon.

Most of the time, it’s the francophone African communities who are the most marginalised as the bulk of the literature is in English and IPCC business is conducted in English. Those who don’t speak the language feel a bit intimidated and hesitate to intervene in debates. They are therefore at a huge disadvantage, and this is something we take into consideration in the context of our training programme.

How has the African scientific community responded to these different initiatives?

I recently met with the new student intake and doctoral students at the WASCAL (West African Science Service Center on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use) programme, which is funded by the German government. The programme covers the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. All of these young people are enthusiastic and want to get involved in the activities of the IPCC. The problem is that they don’t always know how to go about it, and that is precisely where initiatives like ours come in. They give them the opportunity to inform themselves and get support and advice.

We are also working to identify a number of themes on which we could ask African researchers to contribute to scientific journals — because the IPCC’s role is to compile evidence published in journals. If nothing has been published on certain important topics, it is difficult to discuss them in the context of the IPCC’s work. I remember that for the IPCC’s third report, a few of us had to get together and write papers on sustainable development so that the IPCC could take them into consideration. We want the new generation of African researchers to be able to do the same thing.
This piece was originally published by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa French desk.