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African countries now have a snapshot of their science spending. They should use it to improve policy and address development priorities.

Collecting statistical data on both government and private-sector spending on research and development (R&D) is not the most exciting task facing the scientific community. Indeed, those who do get enthusiastic about such things are usually referred to disparagingly as 'policy wonks'.

Yet for the past 50 years, R&D data collected by organisations such as the National Science Board in the United States, or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have formed part of the bedrock on which western nations have both formulated their policies to support research and measured their success in doing so.

For various reasons, ranging from a lack of resources to political indifference, African nations have been slow to follow this example. Where statistics exist, they have tended to be patchy, out-of-date, and sometimes of dubious quality.

All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the publication this week of a report, African Innovation Outlook 2010, which for the first time seeks to provide a wide snapshot of scientific activity across the African continent — and link it to efforts to promote economic and social development through technological innovation.

Broad trends

The report was produced under the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) initiative. ASTII is funded by the Swedish International Development and Cooperation Agency and run by the science and technology office of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), which has recently become an agency of the African Union.

It was based on data gathered from 13 of the 19 African countries that have supported the initiative: Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Even though these represent less than half of the membership of the African Union, the data they provided is sufficient to identify some broad trends.

Bibliometric studies of the 19 countries covered, for example, show that although agricultural research dominated the research agendas of African countries in the 1990s, research in medicine and other life sciences has recently come to dominate. Many would argue that this shift in balance should be redressed in the interests of food security.

Equally telling is the finding that most countries surveyed only spend between 0.20 per cent and 0.48 per cent of their gross national product on R&D — far below the 1 per cent target endorsed by the executive committee of the African Union at a meeting in Khartoum in 2006. Just three countries claim to have exceeded this target, namely Malawi, Uganda and South Africa.

And the broad conclusion that "the few African countries where scientific output is substantial and even growing are not as productive as developing countries elsewhere in the world" should be placed on the desk of every African president committed to the prosperity and well-being of his or her countrymen.

Highs and lows

But all is not gloom. One of the advantages of this type of survey is that it serves to highlight instances where things are moving in the right direction — and to use this information to spur others to follow.

For example, the survey shows that Nigeria devotes an impressive proportion of its R&D funding to basic research (36 per cent), and this figure is also relatively high in South Africa (21 per cent) and Tanzania (19 per cent).

In contrast, Malawi, Mozambique and Uganda allocate only about 10 per cent of their R&D spending on basic research. Spending on applied research accounts for 59 per cent of R&D funds in Uganda, 60 per cent in Malawi, and 83 per cent in Mozambique.

Countries such as South Africa and Senegal have a relatively high number of PhDs among their R&D staff (32% and 26% respectively), but others — notably Ghana, Malawi, Mali and Mozambique — do less well on this measure.

But the report points out that this "does not necessarily mean that research projects in these countries are staffed by less competent R&D staff", adding that this area warrants further research.

Room for improvement

The report clearly has its weaknesses, as the authors admit in describing the first phase of the ASTII programme as a learning mechanism.

An obvious flaw, for example, is that the coverage of African countries is still far from comprehensive. In the next phase, which was launched in Addis Ababa this week, the aim is to cover significantly more countries.

Another drawback is that, as a one-off snapshot of R&D spending, the survey cannot show trends over time. The next report will hopefully address this.

Other limitations reflect the difficulties faced by those collecting the data. The researchers admit that, in many countries, a major problem is the absence of national budget lines for spending on research and the lack of alternative financial support for science at the national level.

This, they say, "limits the scope of programme activities and may affect the sustainability of regular R&D and Innovation data being produced by African countries and institutions".

Whatever its limitations, however, the report provides African policymakers with a valuable source of evidence to draw on to make the case for greater investment in scientific research — and introducing policies to ensure that the results are put to use.

There is, of course, no guarantee that they will do this. But one excuse for inaction — the lack of sufficient data — can no longer be used.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

Link to executive summary [364kB]