Over the past few years there has been much talk about the importance of scientific development in Africa. With the international development agenda, including the new Sustainable Development Goals, increasingly recognising the critical importance of science, technology and innovation in human, social, and economic development, the battle for advanced science is beginning to be won. However, for Africa, grand questions remain about exactly how a continent still struggling with some fundamental challenges such as sanitation, poverty and disease, can properly pursue advanced science policies.
For Dr Alvaro Sobrinho, an Angolan philanthropist and Chairman of the Planet Earth Institute, the quest is clear, Africa should seek its own ‘scientific independence’ – the main goal of his foundation, with offices in Angola and Rwanda – and campaign for science to be pushed higher up the priority lists of African governments. For Dr Sobrinho, scientific independence is not about scientific isolation, and he says it should ‘never be about working alone’. For him and the PEI, ‘Scientific development and expertise is built on collaboration, locally, regionally and internationally, and Africa’s scientific development will be both more rapid and far-reaching with support from the best and the brightest across the world. By independence we mean an end to dependency and the ability for Africa to lead it’s own development agenda.’
“Africa as a whole has around 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants”
Today, many other efforts are also being made to this end, such as the innovative developments that were recently shortlisted for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, an initiative sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK. The shortlisted innovations covered a variety of areas such as sanitation, mobile applications, nanotechnology, and agriculture, all of which are key elements that can help improve the quality of life of African citizens across the continent. Shortlisted participants came from scientific, educational, and research institutions in Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
This is a greatly welcome initiative, given the fact that, as Dr Alvaro Sobrinho points out: “Africa as a whole has around 35 scientists and engineers per million inhabitants, compared with around 130 in India, 168 for Brazil and 450 in China, never mind the figures of 2,457 and 4,103 for Europe and the United States respectively. I’m not going to say a magic number but it should be obvious to everyone that we need to increase those percentages to around the levels of other fast-developing growth regions. We are now launching a number of seed-funding and research grants and PEI and it’s great to see other organisations doing likewise”
Despite the clear signs of entrepreneurship and talent that exist throughout the continent, however, some the current facts are stark. African countries still lag far behind many other regions in the world. Indeed, even Ghana, a fast-growing nation moving toward middle income status, contributes just 0.5 per cent of its GDP to science and technology, according to a recent report published by the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research. In fact, only two African countries have hit the 1% GDP in R&D target set by African leaders in 2007, with most lagging at 0.2-0.3%. At the same time, however, countries like Finland have increased R&D spend to 3.5% GDP.
In a welcome change, African scientists are now increasingly involved in major summits and policy meetings that give them a forum to argue for this change, and to agree new partnerships with world-leading academic institutions. For example, several high-ranking African leaders were recently invited to visit the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the occasion of an event devoted to science, technology, development, and innovation in the African context. This remarkable event paved the way for future collaboration between this US institution and various African countries. It is expected that this type of collaboration will have an enormous impact on higher education institutions in Africa, many of which are operating well below their full capacity.
Having the support of a prestigious and well-established institution such as MIT can help African universities fulfill one of their main roles, which in Dr Sobrinho’s words is to become places for innovation and “a physical manifestation of a growing recognition of the importance of science”.