Recent scientific progress in Africa has been encouraging, but African science still needs to match the rest of the world.
The inaugural Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology took place ten years ago, and since then there have been important steps forward, such as the Consolidated Plan of Action in 2005, and the African Year of Science in 2007. The African Innovation Outlook, a survey of African research, development, and innovation activity, was launched in 2011. There have been national initiatives such as Nigeria’s generous funding for its Academy of Science, and Angola‘s introduction of a new science and technology strategy in 2011, which aimed to use the country’s growing extraction industries as a base for scientific education. The African Union Scientific Awards, launched in 2007, give financial rewards for scientific excellence, most recently to Professor Wingfield of South Africa and Professor Ibrahim of Egypt.
None of this should be allowed to disguise the fact that much remains to be done. In proportion to its population, Africa’s scientific output is still small in global terms. Scientific developments in fields such as food production and renewable energy will have a massive impact on the continent, and it is essential that Africans take responsibility for the research that will determine their future.
In Latin America and Asia, governments are forging ahead with programmes which demonstrate the kind of large-scale action needed. An example is Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Programme, giving 100,000 students support to study abroad, but requiring them to return to Brazil to complete their research. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recently reported that by 2020, 40 percent of all young people with a degree-level education in OECD countries are likely to be in China and India.
Meanwhile, in Africa only Uganda, Malawi, and South Africa have achieved the target of 1 percent of national GDP being invested in research and development. At a talk in London recently, Amina Mohammed, Ban Ki-Moon’s Special Adviser on Post 2015 planning, characterised many African scientific institutions as ‘ticking over, deteriorating and not engaging’. The main reason for this is underfunding, in turn caused by political instability, short-termism, and inconsistent foreign aid policies in developed countries. A fundamental change is necessary. In order to fulfil its huge scientific potential, Africa needs to take responsibility for its own development, to increase public awareness, and to encourage engagement with science at every level.