Africa Analysis: Don’t reject R&D measures too quickly

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Critics looking for more from the first African Innovation Outlook should realise it is a solid base on which to work, says Linda Nordling.

The publication in May of the first African Innovation Outlook, charting the investment of 19 African countries in research and innovation, was a landmark event because of the lack of hard data for these activities.

But the project also raised questions about how best to measure the success of science and innovation in boosting social and economic development on the continent.

Some have challenged whether the indicators measured by the Outlook — in particular, those used to capture research and development (R&D) performance — tell us anything of value about whether R&D activity has tangible benefits for Africans.

But those who criticise the choice of indicators overlook two points.

First, manuals that describe international indicators for R&D and innovation, such as the OECD's Oslo Manual, already discuss how such surveys can be modified to meet the needs of developing countries.

Second, all nations — not just developing countries — are struggling to evaluate the impact of their R&D investments, and Africa's problems are not unique.

Is R&D data too 'raw'?

Writing for SciDev.Net last month, Watu Wamae, an innovation and technology policy analyst for RAND Europe, called for the development of different kinds of indicators of science, technology and innovation (STI).

She wrote that raw indicators such as R&D expenditure must not dominate policy discussions: "We need to give serious attention to the capabilities needed to translate the outputs from R&D into usable and accessible solutions to existing challenges — such as technical, engineering and managerial skills."

Wamae is not the first to criticise the use of STI indicators in Africa — and in particular that of gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a main focus for policymakers. The issue was also hotly debated in the African Science and Innovation Indicators Initiative (ASTII), which over a period of four years produced the African Innovation Outlook.

But at a meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, in 2007, ASTII members — which included national representatives, indicator experts and policymakers — unanimously decided to stick with the international manuals and not start from scratch with different indicators for Africa.

A good starting point

There is a good reason why they decided not to start afresh. The literature on measuring innovation and science in developing countries shows that while many authors do recognise the problems with 'Western indicators' — for example, those on R&D do not include science teaching and training, and those on innovation do not count activity in the public and informal sectors — few have put forward alternative approaches.

Indeed, most people simply suggest 'fixes', while keeping the core indicators in place, primarily to aid international comparisons. Developing African indicators from scratch would have set back the publication of the first Outlook by a number of years, at a time when many science and innovation policymakers were already frustrated by patchy data.

Another good reason for sticking with the currently accepted standards is that the international manuals for measuring R&D and innovation are evolving. The OECD's Oslo Manual, which addresses ways of measuring innovation, gained an appendix in 2006, on the needs and challenges of developing countries. The same organisation's Frascati Manual, which looks at how to measure R&D, had a similar appendix approved this year.

African engagement with the process of updating these manuals will help make them more appropriate for developing countries. The ASTII team, for example, have already reported their experiences in discussions on international indicators.

Future editions of the African Innovation Outlook will provide opportunities for trialling new indicators, particularly in the field of innovation, according to Philippe Mawoko, who until recently coordinated ASTII.

"Indicators for R&D, such as gross domestic expenditures on R&D and number of researchers, grouped in different categories or classes, will continue to be published," he says. "But there is room to experiment with the measurement of other concepts of innovation, such as in the informal sector."

Separating R&D from innovation

R&D indicators are likely to remain important for target setting, if only because they are easier to reduce to numerical values than innovation indicators are. This is the main reason why chapter three of the Outlook, which discusses R&D spending, contains around 60 tables and graphs, while the chapter on innovation has only one.

In particular, there is no single innovation indicator comparable to gross domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP. Efforts to create one, for example by counting the share of fast-growing innovative companies in a country, have been rejected by innovation experts as potentially doing more harm than good and leading to unjustified policy interventions.

The use of single R&D indicators also makes it easier for journalists and others to report on trends in African R&D without causing confusion about innovation. Indeed, one might even question the name of the survey, on the grounds that 'African R&D Outlook' might be more appropriate.

It will be up to future report writers to justify the inclusion of innovation in the title — and to answer critics who are calling for more useful indicators, and for greater justification for government spending on research.

But demonising the collection of R&D data, by describing it as misleading and of limited value, is not productive, particularly when a better alternative is not readily available.

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 on 18 August 2011. A previous version of the article stated that the OECD's Frascati Manual had an appendix related to the needs and challenges of developing countries added last year. This statement was incorrect.