FOR decades African governments have intuitively criticised everything from overbearing multinationals to a lack of technology transfer by global players as some of the many factors holding back their development.
Yet their own investments in science and technology have been at best threadbare, further fuelling the dependency syndrome. But as data shows, there is more than Africa just taking up fancy technology; it, for example, will need to be adapted to its challenges.
The human know-how to do this is lacking, even if it is widely accepted that a regional shift to a knowledge-based economy will better help economic transformation.
Available World Bank data collated from three sub-Saharan African regions—East, West and Central, and southern, could however help African policy makers prioritise science and better shift resources. But what the numbers found is startling:
1. Sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for under 1% of the world’s research output, despite having 12% of the world’s population. But this statistic hides the gains: between 2003 and 2012 the region more than doubled its yearly research output, raising its share of global research from 0.44% to 0.72% over the period.
2. Citations—a measure of quality and importance—to articles from the three regions grew from 0.06%-0.16% to 0.12%-0.28% of global citations. When differences in citation based on subject field and publication type are factored in, southern Africa grew the weighted impact of its research the most, to 39% above the world average.
3. Health sciences research is still king: 45% of all research in the region is in health sciences—reflecting the continent’s health challenges, but also the focus of research funders. This component of research has grown by about 4% every year, showing that the investment by donors and governments does pay off.
4. However, sub-Saharan Africa research output in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM research) significantly lags behind other subject areas. Excluding South Africa, research in the physical sciences and STEM makes up only 29% of all research in the region, compared to an average of 68% in Malaysia, a much-cited Asian Tiger, and which had the same research output as Africa in 2003.
5. It gets worse: the share of STEM research in sub-Saharan Africa has declined by 0.2% every year since 2002. In South Africa it is down 0.1%. Fewer articles (32% below the global average) cited the continent’s science research, and this number has stayed the same since 2003, suggesting less quantity, and quality.
But there is also some light—STEM research in South Africa (together with Malaysia and Vietnam) has increased by 15% over the decade.
6. A very large share of the region’s research is a result of collaboration with international partners—nearly 80% in southern Africa (excluding South Africa at 45%) and 70% in East Africa. While there are benefits to be had for both partners, it suggests a lack of internal capacity to produce quality research and attain the so-called gold-standard of independent and transparently-funded research.
7. The number of researchers mirrors the flow of resources. In Burkina Faso nearly half, or 46%, of researchers focus on medical science and health, while in Ethiopia this drops to 21%. A quarter of Kenya’s researchers concentrate their efforts in the same fields. Those that focus on STEM research in the three countries are 16%, 6% and 14% respectively.
8. There is very little intra-African collaboration. Collaborations without a South African or international collaborator make up only 2% of all East African research output, just 0.9% in West and Central Africa, and 2.9% in southern Africa. Trends also suggest that global corporations do not rely much on African-generated knowledge to aid their competitiveness.
9. Nearly half—48%—of southern African researchers, and 39% in eastern Africa, spend less than two years at institutions in the region. While mobile researchers are more productive in terms of publications and are more highly cited, their transitory nature also prevents them from building local relations, reducing the impact of their research. At least 85% of all southern African researchers have published an article while outside their region, compared to 58.2% of those in western and central Africa.
10. However, returning diaspora significantly raise the citation impact of sub-Saharan Africa research, especially in east and southern Africa. Returnee researchers make up a small share—an average of 2.9%— of the two region’s total researcher base but they have a high citation impact, making a case for tapping their contribution to raise the quality and quantity of research for the continent’s growth.
11. Economists like to talk of the opportunity cost of something—the benefit you would have received had you chosen an alternative option. The estimated cost of a doctoral degree is $50,000, enough to finance five classrooms that would benefit about 400 pupils. As such, the bank says funding for research should be closely tied to the continent’s developmental challenges.
12. A higher Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would suggest more capacity to invest in research and training the researcher. One would thus expect South Africa to lead in terms of research productivity; however West and Central Africa, and East Africa are slightly more productive in terms of articles per million dollars.
South Africa rebounds in terms of population, at 242.6 articles per million people in 2011. The closest region to it is West and Central Africa, at 47.8 articles per million people.
13. Citations are what is termed a “lagging” indicator—they can take several months to show up on the radar. An alternative—and timelier— way of capturing the impact of research is by measuring the number of times it is downloaded. East Africa leads in the number of downloads from Elseviers—a leading database that accounts for about 20% of published peer-reviewed journals— between 2008-2012. Corporates however downloaded more of southern Africa’s research than other regions.
14. When seeking to prove the “newness” of a patent—which is a claim for exclusive use of intellectual property—citations from southern Africa, excluding South Africa, are the least cited. Unsurprisingly though, South Africa leads in patent citations—at 804 for the period between 2003-2012, according to specific sources.
15. Collaborations between academics and corporates account for only a small percentage of regional research output, despite their potential for a greater transfer of knowledge, and as a sign of future funding channels. They have however been growing: Southern Africa published only 16 co-authored articles in 2003, but 74 in 2012.
16: Collaborations on Africa research output tend to be with institutions in the US and Europe, but a close look also shows that they follow colonial ties. Former British colonies will more likely work with the UK, as will France with Francophone African countries. Certain institutions are more general—notably Harvard University, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. For companies GlaxoSmithKline and Norvatis are visible.