Africa Analysis: Research topic trends are useful for Africa
Analysis of scientific trends can help policymakers target limited resources where science and development collide, argues Linda Nordling.
Last month, Thomson Reuters released a report identifying 100 'front lines' in research. These are topics seeing rapid growth in publications and citations — a measure of scientific activity and importance. 
The list contains several topics relevant to Africa, such as assessments of maternal and child health, ocean acidification and the impact of climate change on food crops.
- A list of trendy research topics undermines the case that global science ignores African interests
- But the main actors in these areas aren't African
- The list can help to identify topics where science and development priorities meet
This is good news for African researchers working in these fields, as it might increase the international visibility of — and funding for — their work. But it also highlights important commonalities between the global research agenda and African priorities and challenges.
In Africa, we sometimes believe that global curiosity-driven research — studies driven by researchers' inquisitiveness rather than political or strategic directives — is at odds with the continent's development priorities.
Many articles — and I've written some of them — argue that Africa's dependence on international research funding means its own priorities are overlooked.
While there may be a degree of truth to such beliefs, it has led to a culture of isolation among some African science policymakers. These people speak of wresting the scientific agenda away from international trends.
They long for the 'domestication' of science in Africa, arguing that internationally driven science — aiming for publication in top journals and Nobel prizes rather than to solve real-life problems — won't improve the lives of ordinary Africans.
I have always felt wary of this 'Africanising' ideology for science and innovation. Research is inherently collaborative, and is becoming more so, bridging national and cultural boundaries.
Making African scientists turn away from these international collaborations, and away from the recognition of their peers in other countries, will only make Africa's best scientists leave for greener pastures.
If Western science values aren't contributing to making the developing world a better place to live, I believe the fault doesn't lie with developing country scientists being lured away from national challenges by international funding priorities.
Rather, it is the failure of local governments, businesses and development efforts to help drive the international science agenda by putting their own resources into relevant research areas. These governments also have a responsibility to take the new knowledge into account, turn it into locally applicable solutions that can then be implemented on the ground.
Led from outside
The Thomson Reuters report is significant because it highlights several trends that argue against the false dichotomy of 'African' and 'international' science. It shows that curiosity-driven international research can tackle subjects of relevance to developing regions.
But even where research trends are relevant to African problems, the main actors are, still, not African. An example of this is 'polymer solar cells' — one of the trendy research areas identified by Thomson Reuters.
Rather than using silicon-based technology, polymer solar cells convert sunlight to electricity using organic polymers. This technology is cheap, durable and environmentally friendly, and could help bring electricity to remote rural areas in developing countries.
The technology has been pursued by a project called the Lighting Africa initiative. This joint project between the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank aims to provide electricity to areas not reached by the national grid.
But the key researchers in the field are not African. They are Danish, led by Frederik Krebs of the Technical University of Denmark. And Australians dominate another trendy subject of high relevance to Africa: ocean acidification caused by burning fossil fuels. This threatens coral reefs in tropical seas with unknown, but potentially significant, effects on fishing and tourism.
However, it is not just countries with established research capacity that drive the trendy subjects. China and South Korea are big producers in the fashionable subject of how climate change will affect food crops. This shows that, as a country's scientific standing grows, it gets a stronger say over the direction of global research.
This is something that African policymakers should take into account before deciding that international and African research priorities are at odds.
It is easy to blame Western scientific values for science failing to have an impact in developing countries. It is also easy to blame developing country scientists for being blinded by the 'publish or perish' imperative, and for failing to make sure their research meets local needs.
But it is difficult to tackle the real challenges: boosting local support for research and making sure to link this with wider development efforts. In a scenario where resources are limited, such as in most developing countries, it might be hard to decide where to target such investments.
However, scientific trend analyses — such as the one provided by Thomson Reuters — can help policymakers identify areas where cutting-edge science and development priorities collide.
These are likely to be crucial areas where their investments might make the most difference. Firstly, to science, by giving national researchers a fair chance to get into an internationally growing field. But it can also make a difference to development, as funding for technology adaptation and engineering skills can help a country make use of fresh technologies in the field.
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, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.