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The African Union's new research and innovation survey is a treasure trove of data — and deserves better reporting, says Linda Nordling.

'Hard' data are rare in Africa, and journalists mostly have to make do with rough estimates and half-empty spreadsheets. So we should pore over fresh new data sets when they appear, shouldn't we?

It seems not. Last month, the African Union finally launched the first African Innovation Outlook — a survey of African research, development and innovation activity. It may contain research and development (R&D) figures for only 13 of Africa's 50 or so countries, but it's the most detailed picture yet of what the continent spends on science.

But coverage so far in the media has been disappointing, which is all the more surprising because it really is a treasure trove of information.

Among the more startling findings is that three countries — South Africa, Uganda and Malawi — spent more than 1 per cent of their GDP on R&D in 2007. Malawi claims to have spent an eye-popping 1.6 per cent of its GDP — a figure that demands deeper investigation.

That only 1014 of Kenya's nearly 7,000 R&D personnel have PhDs — less than a quarter as many as Tanzania and less than half of Uganda's total of PhDs — is also surprising, and likely to raise some questions in Kenyan science and technology circles.

Did anyone pick up on these statistics?

Nationals miss the numbers

The report did get a decent amount of coverage in certain outlets. Dedicated science and university news sites such as Nature, University World News, Cape Town-based Research Africa and SciDev.Net all covered the report in detail.

It is encouraging that the survey also got a smattering of coverage in mainstream African newspapers. The Citizen, for example, a Tanzanian broadsheet, carried a short article, as did Ghana's Accra Mail and the press agencies of Senegal and Angola — and that's just the number of stories that appear on a Google news search.

But many of these articles make disappointing reading. Most focus on the launch of the report rather than the data presented in it. And none delve into the data from a national perspective.

It is astounding that the only number appearing in the story run by The Citizen is 136 — the number of pages in the report. And the most cited number in all stories in the national media is 19 — the number of countries that participated in the survey.

Where are the stories asking why Malawi scored so highly? And where is the story questioning Kenya's low PhD rates?

As if that wasn't enough, most mainstream press stories have also focused on the announcement of the second phase of the African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (ASTII) initiative — which is behind the report — with the message that 'more investment' is needed in science and technology.

This is tedious and woolly information that does no justice to the concrete data presented in the report — if journalists took time to look at it.

Beyond the press releases

So why did these articles gloss over the real news?

One reason is probably that most of the national articles were based on coverage by the Pan African News Agency (PanaPress) and on press releases from the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Indeed, much of the coverage repeats these sources verbatim.

Neither PanaPress nor NEPAD refer much to the findings of the report, which also explains the dearth of data in the national coverage.

But why didn't at least one of the journalists look at the press releases, or the PanaPress story, and ask themselves, "Well, what does the report say?".

Stories on science and innovation indicators are probably a low priority for most African newsdesks. But now that R&D capacity is often used as a proxy for economic competitiveness, similar reports on other continents would set the business and technology presses humming.

Second, since such data sources are so scarce on the continent, perhaps most journalists don't understand what a goldmine they can be.

It is also rare that reports — even executive summaries — are published online at launch, so few journalists may have thought to look on the NEPAD website, where the summary has been posted.

Overcoming the data phobia

Christina Scott, editor of Research Africa and a stalwart of African science journalism, thinks a lack of numeracy among journalists is also a factor.

"There's a huge fear of numbers among journalists. That is why we see stories, even in South Africa, that report that 'so and so attended a meeting' or 'so and so objected to something'. They don't report on the data, and might not even find numbers very interesting," she says.

This lack of numeracy among journalists is not restricted to Africa. It can be found in most UK newsrooms, for example. Journalism graduates often have degrees in English or politics, not science. And most journalists anywhere have to learn to overcome their fear of numbers in the newsroom — often from a seasoned colleague showing them the ropes.

Given African governments' poor record of producing and sharing data, it is not surprising that the continent's journalists don't appreciate that figures, when they do appear, can be a foundation for independent, investigative journalism. Better training in science journalism could help African newsrooms recognise this.

With the data drought coming to an end, and as some governments make data available online, this neglect must also come to an end.

The African Innovation Outlook, as a benchmark of R&D investment for a continent striving for development, certainly deserves better.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, the Guardian, Nature and others.

This article was updated 25 July 2011. A previous version of this article stated that the number of R&D personnel who have PhDs in Kenya is 72. This was due to an error in an early version of the report.