Sci-tech research in Africa: How peace makes scientists lazy

Although Africa's share of global research output is less than 1%, the good news is that it has doubled in the past decade.

MOST African governments have made declarations to support science and technology innovation in their countries; in March this year, a number of African governments agreed on a joint strategy to boost investments in science and technology to accelerate Africa toward a developed knowledge-based society “within one generation”.

Rwanda is the most-cited example of top-down, deliberate government strategy in science and technology – the country aspires to be a regional technology hub, the “Singapore of Africa”. Not coincidentally, the joint strategy in March was signed in Kigali.

new report focusing on STEM research in sub-Saharan Africa by the World Bank reveals some progress is being made; African scientists are publishing more—in the past ten years, the number of published research coming out of sub-Saharan Africa has nearly doubled.

However, Africa is still practically off the radar in the global scientific community – African researchers produce just 2% of the world’s research output, and if we exclude North Africa, the figure drops to 0.72%. Still, this is still “good news” considering that ten years ago, sub-Saharan Africa’s share in global research output was just 0.44%.

The bulk of research produced is in health, which is understandable taking into account the tremendous challenges many African countries face in tackling their disease burden. Health research represents nearly half (45%) of the total research in Africa, excluding North Africa.

But the share of STEM research in Africa has declined by up to 0.2% over the past ten years, and its quality is also wanting – studies by African researchers in the physical sciences are cited 32% less than the global average.

Still, it seems that innovation on the ground in Africa is by-passing the traditional academic channels – technology hubs are springing up all over Africa’s cities, incubating the next generation of technologists, most of whom are young and may not necessarily have graduate degrees or doctorates in engineering.

There are at least 90 tech hubs across the continent, and more than half of Africa economies have at least one.

But if we focus on academia and the formal research institutes, the report by the World Bank reveals something curious – up to four out of five studies “published in Africa” are actually collaborations with institutions in Europe and North America.

East and Southern Africa is particularly dependent on international collaboration. In 2012, 70-79% of research published in East and Southern Africa were produced through international collaborations.

Transitory scholars – those who spend less than two years in the region – make up half of the researcher base in South Africa, 57% in East Africa and a staggering 65% of the rest of Southern Africa.

West and Central Africa is the outlier here, with transitory scholars making up 44% of the body of researchers.

Working with international institutions is not necessarily a bad thing, the report highlights. It raises the citation impact of publications– a measure of the research quality of studies. 

Also, such collaborations have a higher citation impact than the average publication coming out of the international research partner, suggesting that the collaboration is a win-win for Africa and the international collaborator.

But the heavy dependency on outside help is a worry. It suggests a lack of internal capacity for the region to produce high quality international research on its own, particularly within science, technology, engineering and math. It also has the risk of stifling research freedom, as the international institution typically provides a chunk of the funding, and so “controls” the focus and direction of research.

Although transitory scholars tend to publish more papers per year than those who stay primarily on the continent, drilling deep into the data reveals some unexpected trends.

West and Central Africa doesn’t attract many international scholars, relative to the rest of Africa—transitory researchers make up 44% of the researcher base, the lowest of the African regions. But for those who do come, they are the most productive of all visiting scholars on the continent – they produce 27% more papers per year on average than the typical researcher in that region.

Local West African researchers are also the “most hardworking” in Africa, publishing more papers per year than other local scholars in other African regions.

But the “laziest” scholars are to be found in southern Africa (excluding South Africa). They publish just 13% more than the average African researcher, despite making up 65% of the researcher base, the highest in Africa.

And local scientists in this region are also the “laziest” in Africa, publishing the fewest papers per year than any other region in Africa.

There is a strong correlation between the proportion of international researchers, and the productivity of both visiting and local scholars—the more transitory scholars a region has, the less productive both the visitors and locals become.

West Africa’s Francophone tradition could explain why it attracts fewer visiting scientists, as more research is published globally in English than in French. It could also be a measurement if Francophone research is not adequately published or indexed.

But there could be another explanantion: historically, West and Central Africa has been the most politically unstable region in Africa, with nearly every country suffering coups, counter-coups or dictatorships. 

This discourages visitors, but it also does something else—it raises the “stakes” of being a part of academia. There is a real risk of being harassed or even killed if you don’t toe the line in a dictatorship – so for those who choose to publish, they tend to be work harder, as a political statement.

It’s ironic that peace would make scientists lazy, but this is exactly what seems to be happening – without the “pressure” from an unstable political environment, visiting scholars appear to be whiling away their time, maybe going on safari or to the discos, while the locals sit around waiting for the next tranche of funding.


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