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Funders of social science in Africa must allow researchers to break away from a narrow focus on development-related issues if they are to maximise their contribution to the continent's big challenges, experts say.

By largely ignoring more open-ended, or 'blue-sky', projects, funding agencies are preventing the more-nuanced understanding of African societies and their views on the wider world that is needed to tackle issues such as climate change, food security and inequality, says Fatima Harrak, president of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

“Social sciences are a basic ingredient and an indispensable part of science policy and the formulation of adequate responses to global challenges.”

Fatima Harrak, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa 

Addressing a meeting of postdoctoral scientists who are funded by the Volkswagen Foundation earlier this month (3-4 October) in Hanover, Germany, Harrak called on funders to be more receptive to exploratory social science research — or risk the development gap between Africa and the developed world widening further.
"Social sciences are a basic ingredient and an indispensable part of science policy and the formulation of adequate responses to global challenges," she told SciDev.Net on the sidelines of the meeting.

A thorough understanding of social issues in other countries viewed from an African perspective is an important component of this synergy, she added.

Knowledge of other societies, for example, could lead to important development benefits by providing policy-makers and academics with an understanding of their trade and development partners, Harrak said. But with African institutions overwhelmingly "focused inwards", there are few opportunities for researchers to study other areas of the world.

According to Harrak, this often leads to social scientists with an interest in non-African issues leaving the continent, a loss of capacity that limits the growth of the field.

Research that aims to solve predefined problems is only one part of social science, yet it dominates the African research landscape, says Mamadou Diawara, deputy director of the Frobenius Institute, a social science research institution with a particular focus on Africa that is based at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Germany.

Progress in hard science disciplines would be diminished if research were limited to activities that helped to solve specific problems, and social sciences are no different, he tells SciDev.Net.

Donors must move away from using the social sciences exclusively as a "firefighting tool" in development situations — using science to work out the best ways of overcoming local opposition to a new dam or road, for example — and begin to include long-term and in-depth studies of the communities they seek to help, Diawara says.

Universities and governments must also take their share of responsibility for creating a healthy social sciences community by helping to increase the low number of quality professors and teachers of the subject, he adds.