Africa Analysis: Fast-forward to end of 2015

The High Energy Stereoscopic System telescopes
Copyright: Flickr/ Philip Schuler, World Bank

Speed read

  • Three issues could shake African science, policy and development nexus in 2015
  • Nigeria’s elections and Boko Haram could spell trouble for its S&T projects
  • The rest are Namibia’s astronomy plans, and higher education summit in Senegal

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Linda Nordling dusts off her crystal ball to present key science issues that should impact development in 2015.

Let me dare say this at the top: Ebola won't go away as an issue. It might be beaten in West Africa, but the research and health aftermath will keep us busy for some time.
The haemorrhagic fever killed almost 8,000 people in West Africa in 2014, according to the WHO. [1] Even as the outgoing chief of the UN anti-Ebola mission predicts an end to the epidemic in 2015, there is still a long way to go.
In the happy event that Ebola is brought under control, the debate will shift to how to avoid the same epidemic happening again. And findings from research on Ebola treatments will still have a compelling attraction for the media.
But what could be some trends set to shake the African science, policy and development nexus in 2015? Here are three of my frontrunners.

“Government officials, university leaders and development experts will lock horns from 10-12 March to discuss how African universities can meet the demands of a modern world.”
Linda Nordling


Nigeria’s elections

The elections in Nigeria in next month (February) could destabilise the country and spell trouble for science and technology projects in Africa’s largest economy.
The 14 February polls look set to be a tightly contested race between Christian incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and coalition of opposition parties led by Muhammadu Buhari, a retired army general and a representative of the Muslim north.
Flare-ups seem inevitable along ethnic and religious fault lines of Nigeria. The added pressure of terror group Boko Haram and the plummeting oil price could cook up a perfect storm for unrest.
The low oil price means Nigeria may have to cut its public spending. If public sector salaries and grants are compromised, Nigeria’s university sector could be crippled by strike action as it was in 2013 following a government failure to honour funding promises.
Other casualties could include ambitious technology projects such as Nigeria’s plans to launch its first “Made in Nigeria” satellite by 2018.
Organisations such as the Nigerian Academy of Sciences should argue against such cuts by lobbying leaders about the contributions of science and technology to development, and the need to diversify the economy away from its current oil dependency, in the lead-up to the elections, and beyond.

Full house in Astronomy?

Southern Africa could score a ‘full house’ in astronomy if Namibia beats Chile in its bid to host the southern part of the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).
The CTA, like its cousin the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), will be split between two sites, one in the northern and another in the southern hemisphere. But whereas the SKA will detect radio waves, the CTA will intercept high-energy gamma rays on the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Southern Africa could score a ‘full house’ in astronomy if Namibia beats Chile in its bid to host the southern part of the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).”
Linda Nordling

Namibia already has a five-telescope Cherenkov Array, the High Energy Stereoscopic System. However, the CTA southern site could feature more than 100 telescopes with diameters of four, 12 and 23 metres. [2]
The CTA Resource Board will meet in June 2015 to discuss the southern site. There may be a decision on the site at that meeting, according to Rene Ong, CTA spokesman and professor of physics and astronomy at University of California, Los Angeles in the United States.
If Namibia gets the board’s approval, it will mean Southern Africa will be one of the best places in the world to do so-called “multi-wavelength” astronomy. This means combining optical (from the existing Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland, South Africa), radio and gamma-ray observations to create a more complete image of the universe.
The National Research Foundation of South Africa is already training people in multi-wavelength astronomy in anticipation for the day when these powerful instruments are all —hopefully — in its backyard.
Large science infrastructure projects such as the SKA and CTA don’t just benefit science. They can also have socioeconomic benefits, for instance, by creating jobs in the local hospitality and construction industries, and boosting local manufacturing and high technology markets.

Higher education heats up

Finally, in March, Dakar will be the place to be if you are a science or higher education policymaker worth your salt. The Senegalese capital will host the African Higher Education Summit to discuss the future of African universities.
Government officials, university leaders and development experts will lock horns from 10-12 March to discuss how African universities can meet the demands of a modern world. The question is: Will they be able to agree on a way forward?
Pretty much everyone agrees that African universities need reform. But there are opposing ideas about the ‘how’.
For instance, should universities drop theoretical courses for more applied ones such as engineering or agriculture?
Should foreign universities be encouraged to set up branch campuses in Africa to ease the teaching pressure at local institutions?
And what is a ‘good’ university in Africa anyway? Is it the university with no tuition fees, or the one that can claim the highest fees?  Is it one that studies local issues and uplifts communities, or one that does cutting edge research in competition — or jointly — with leading universities in the global West?
If enough common ground can be found at the Senegal summit, an actionable way forward could be carved out. But the summit would still need to secure funding, which seems to be the biggest challenge of organisers.
These issues combined with a myriad others that didn’t fit in this column (such as the World Social Science Forum to be held in Africa for the first time) will make 2015 yet another exciting year for African science.
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.


[1] World Health Organisation (2014) Ebola data and statistics (WHO, published 31 December 2014)
[2] The Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology Gamma-ray Astronomy: Site negotiations for Cherenkov Telescope Array started (IRAP, 2014)