Centres of excellence: not ideal for African science

Africa needs more trained scientists and engineers Copyright: SciDev.Net/Catherine Brahic

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African centres of excellence will concentrate development in just a few countries, condemning the rest of the continent to the status quo, says Mwananyanda Mbikusita Lewanika.

African countries have responded to the need to boost science and technology by creating centres of excellence. But creating such centres in just a few African countries is unlikely to lead to an effective spread of science, technology and innovation necessary for development across the whole continent.

Such a strategy will only cause stagnation, and retard the growth of African science and technology. Thus, the danger is that an over-emphasis on centres of excellence will, rather than improve African science, simply widen the existing technological gap both between African countries and between the continent and the rest of the world.

Science key to development

Science and technology is critical to the social and economic development of any nation. Indeed, the extent to which knowledge is generated and innovation used is what distinguishes developing countries from developed ones.

The difference between African countries and other developing nations, such as Brazil, China and India that are fast becoming industrialised can similarly be attributed to disparities in science and innovation.

But despite acknowledging the importance of science for development, Africa still marginalises it — as demonstrated by the small percentage of gross domestic product that most African countries invest in science and technology. The consequence of this underinvestment is that the continent continues to lag behind the rest of the world in economic competitiveness.

Need for more local scientists

To overcome the scourge of poverty and move towards prosperity, African countries must invest in their own capacities for generating domestic science and technology. This means embracing science and technology as a critical ingredient for national development.

Scientists have a crucial role in engaging policymakers and the general public in science and technology. The onus is on researchers and engineers to devise ways of demystifying science and technology so that African society can appreciate how these fields affect their day-to-day life, and how it is critical to development.

Africa must also invest in creating a ‘critical mass’ of trained scientists and engineers necessary to make significant scientific progress. According to UNESCO, Europe, Japan and the United States have two to five scientists or engineers per thousand people — while most of Africa has less than one in ten thousand. This problem is made worse by the falling number of scientists and engineers graduating from African universities, as well as the high number of these graduates who emigrate to richer countries.

African nations must not only drastically increase the number of scientists and engineers graduating each year, they must also do whatever it takes to retain them once they have qualified — such as creating an environment that nurtures their talents and ensures their economic and social well-being.

Widespread investment

Strengthening existing research and development in Africa should not be limited to investing in a few select institutions in ‘favoured’ countries that are expected to act as centres of excellence for the whole continent.

Centres of excellence are unlikely to be the most appropriate or effective starting point for development, because the scientific and technological base outside the centres would still be weak, with little capacity to absorb or use what would be generated from the centres. It is doubtful that there can be meaningful collaborations between unequal institutions.

Thus, promoting such centres will simply ensure that the development of African science, technology and innovation is focused on a small number of countries, condemning the rest of the continent to the status quo.

Instead, existing research and development institutions and universities must form the core of home-grown scientific knowledge creation, and must foster African scientists to lead to the development or adoption of technologies to address Africa’s development challenges.

Mwananyanda Mbikusita Lewanika is executive director of the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research in Lusaka, Zambia.