Poor pay threatens African science
More than 90 per cent of researchers in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) covered by the survey said that they were underpaid, and the same was true of 62 per cent of scientists in northern Africa, and 52 per cent in South Africa.
And although researchers earn on average nine times the local minimum salary, most of them said that they were unable to live on their scientific salary alone. One half of them take on additional jobs, which can quadruple their basic income.
The poor levels of pay and other constraints are forcing many researchers to consider changing their line of work. Only 40 per cent wish to continue their career in national science, 30 per cent plan to work in national development programmes and 12 per cent are thinking of setting up a private business.
The findings come from the newly released study Science in Africa at the dawn of the XXIst century, produced by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Commission.
The study, conducted in 15 African countries, exposes a number of weaknesses in Africa’s scientific systems. It shows that science in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, is going through a serious crisis, mainly due to the radical withdrawal of State support.
Nigerian science has fared especially badly, the study says. During the past 15 years, the country has seen its scientific productivity cut in two, it has lost half of its university elite, and has fallen from third place in terms of scientific capacity — after South Africa and Egypt — to fifth place.
But there is also good news for some of the region’s scientists. The North African Maghreb countries, for example, have seen the number of research papers published by their scientists soar by 60 per cent in seven years.
And South Africa, the continent’s leading scientific nation, is described as a “robust and highly effective research complex”.
The total number of papers published in the region, however, still trails far behind Europe: African scientists published about 8,500 papers in 1997, an increase of 6.5 per cent from 1991; by comparison, the number of papers published by European scientists shot up 46 per cent over the same period to almost 290,000.
And the study finds only limited examples of scientific collaboration within Africa - taken as a sign of ‘scientific maturity’.
Researchers from South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria — which together produce more than 50 per cent of Africa’s scientific publications — still carry out three-quarters of their scientific research by themselves.
But the study also found that one in two publications from English-speaking countries in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) have been co-authored by scientists from different countries. In French-speaking nations and in the North African Maghreb countries the figures are between 60 and 80 per cent.
Such cooperation is essential, says Roland Waast from the French Institute of Research for Development (IRD), one of the authors of the study: “As well as its irreplaceable function of bringing [scientists’] level of competence up to date and introducing new techniques, [scientific cooperation] has the power to restructure institutions,” he says.
The study has exposed many of the problems facing science in Africa. But acknowledging these weaknesses is just a first step, according to another author of the report, Jacques Gaillard, acting director of the Sweden-based International Foundation for Science.
“A number of activities are now needed in Africa, including competitive research grant activities and the creation of centres of excellence,” he says.
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Science in Africa at the dawn of the XXIst century (in French) (412k)
Questionnaire Survey of African Scientists (994k)
Les chercheurs africains: une enquête questionnaire (841k)
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