Small-scale support counts for social science in Africa

A culture of debate is just as important as funding for science in Africa Copyright: Flickr/US Army Africa

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Solving Africa’s problems needs not just technology, but social science — and a culture of debate, says Jonathan Harle.

Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa face numerous challenges — from a changing climate and water scarcity, to the double burden of infectious and chronic diseases, to limited agricultural productivity and rapidly growing cities.

Any solutions will require better scientific understanding and effective application of both new and traditional technologies.

But scientific advances alone will not lead to development: people and their societies are far too complex for this.

We need to understand the social contexts in which knowledge is applied, the willingness of people to adopt new technologies or treatments, and the barriers they may face in doing so.

And we need to forge stronger links between natural and social sciences, so we learn from each other how to strengthen research.

Although debates about research capacity and training tend to emphasise the natural sciences, a parallel conversation is taking place in the social sciences and humanities. And both can benefit from small-scale initiatives to nurture good ideas.

Social factors shape progress

People’s responses to science and technology are defined by culture, institutions, and beliefs.

For example, new agricultural techniques and crop varieties may alleviate chronic food shortages, but we also need to understand how people manage their own nutritional insecurity.

Similarly, preventing and coping with disease requires sociologists as well as doctors. And efforts to ensure that people prosper in growing cities need not only engineers but also those skilled in exploring the dynamics of social networks and changing urban spaces — new forms of leadership and governance, for example.

More broadly, we need to better understand the policymaking process so that governments can translate new knowledge into effective responses to these challenges.

But the role of the humanities and social sciences is not limited to improving the application and understanding of science and technological advances.

If few things in the future are certain, social change certainly is. It is society, culture, politics and the economy which often determine whether development is successful, and which we need to explore through research.

A country such as Nigeria, with more than 500 languages and 250 ethno-regional groupings shows that African scholars need also to tackle questions about history and identity.

And they need support to explore the daily machinations of power that continue to determine the prosperity — and problems — of many nations.

Common problems and solutions

In Africa, many of the obstacles facing researchers are common to all fields, whether in natural or social sciences: access to essential resources and facilities; funding to seed new ideas or develop larger projects; inadequate salaries and incentives; ageing academic staff and the missing next generation.

But many of the potential solutions overlap too — as do the frameworks that support them. And in many cases it all takes place on the same university campus.

There are initiatives that work across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, such as new networks linking African institutions. These include the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA) and the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE).

And there are new approaches to postgraduate training. ‘Split-site’ or collaborative degrees can deliver more at a lower cost than expensive overseas scholarships, and sharing data online allows researchers to collaborate across continents.

In support of this, since 2007 the British Academy and the Association of Commonwealth Universities have been helping to foster a series of conversations between African academics and their peers in the United Kingdom — sparking what is now known as the ‘Nairobi process’ to strengthen research in the humanities and social sciences.

A range of initiatives have been developed independently of The Nairobi process. But it has captured dispersed activities and served as a hub for a growing debate on how to strengthen research in the humanities and social sciences, and why they matter to Africa’s future.

Culture of critical discussion

Many initiatives are small in scale — for example writing workshops to help young researchers to publish, organised by the African Studies Association of the UK, or partnership schemes to support the exchange of scientists and research between regions.

Others are larger, such as the intra-regional collaborative taking shape under the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, or the African Doctoral Academy, launched at Stellenbosch University in South Africa in January this year.

Together with many other initiatives across the continent, they are beginning to create a new sense of optimism. They have shown that improving the quality and range of research need not be achieved only with large-scale funding, support for major projects, or many new scholarships — valuable and important as these all are.

Above all, it’s the small things that matter. Good ideas can grow without large-scale initiatives to prop them up.

Where the individual researcher will most benefit is at the department level — and this is as much about creating cultures of critical discussion and debate as it is about securing new resources and funding.

Supporting a young scholar’s transition from their PhD to the early stages of a postdoctoral career ensures that investment in training fuels the growth of a new generation of researchers.

Good mentoring from senior academics can help to build the vital intergenerational ties that are essential to vibrant research departments. And the right institutional policies can ensure that space and time is set aside for academics to do real research and to publish.

Humanities and social science scholars don’t need the expensive labs that their colleagues in the natural sciences might. But some of these small things can be of immense value to researchers in all fields.

Jonathan Harle is programme officer (research) at the Association of Commonwealth Universities in London, United Kingdom.