AFRICANGLOBE – At first sight, it seems unlikely – a continent most associated with war and famine producing globally significant scientific research.
However, in many ways, the groundwork is there – knowledge, ingenuity, willingness to learn and adapt, coupled with the rapid expansion of digital technology. All of this is really allowing Africa to play a major part in global scientific collaborations.
Holding development back, higher education remains poor.
Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), churches and development agencies push basic literacy – it is a huge international industry.
But there is nothing at the higher end, very little money for tertiary education. It is quite hard to study in Africa, and encouraging talented students to leave is an industry in itself, with a large variety of academic bursaries available for study in the US and Europe.
If the limited available statistics are to be believed, there are perhaps fewer than five million students in higher education in the whole of Africa – and most of those, perhaps two-thirds, are in South Africa, the wealthiest country.
It is a low base to start from, but the tide is turning. Real, serious scientific work is taking place now in Africa, especially in maths, physics and astronomy.
Prof Justin Jonas, from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a collaborative international radio telescope project involving eight African nations, as well as countries worldwide, says: “Africa has reached a stage of development where it has become a destination for doing world-class science – a place that has individuals, facilities and institutions that attract scientists from around the world to work on the continent.
“It has also become an attractive proposition for Africans to remain on home soil, rather than seek research opportunities abroad.
“As an example, the SKA project has resulted in a net brain gain to the region, with leading astronomers, ranging from post-doc[toral]s to research professors, choosing to work in Africa.”
Similar sentiments are expressed by Prof Tejinder Virdee, a former director of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, which has been at the forefront of the search for the Higgs boson at Europe’s premier particle physics lab, Cern.
Prof Virdee sees huge potential in Africa for developing institutions to join in with global collaborative projects such as those pursued at Cern.
He says the search for the Higgs particle involved number-crunching on a grand scale, and that the data could have been processed anywhere with the right tools – so why not in Africa?
And from the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), itself an institute with strong links to the global physics community, there is the Next Einstein Initiative.
This is currently setting up centres of excellence in Africa for the mathematical sciences, and is connected to some of the most forward-thinking academics in the fields of maths and physics across the continent, as well as in Canada, the UK and the US.
Next Einstein Initiative executive director Thierry Zomahoun says: “So far, we have set up institutes in Senegal and Ghana, with more planned in Cameroon, Tanzania and Benin..
“And the idea is literally to create an environment in which an African Einstein could develop.”
Perhaps the areas where Africa’s scientific contributions are most striking is in our understanding of Malaria and HIV.
The Aids epidemic has ravaged major parts of the continent, but it was research led from Africa that made the connection in the 1980s between Aids, then prevalent among homosexual men in the US, and “slim disease” in Africa. HIV was the cause of both.
Since then, Africa has seen some of the most important work in combating HIV – from demonstrating and tackling mother-to-child transmission, to research among people who appear to have immunity to the disease.
“Africa-based research has clearly contributed to the fact that in many countries there are now fewer deaths from Aids and fewer new HIV infections,” said Peter Piot, the former director of UNAids.
The potential for Africa to play a big role in global science is there, but questions remain over research funding and the appropriateness of research led by foreign donors.
Last year, the African Union set up a science and technology advisory panel to develop a more Africa-centred research and development environment.
Its co-chair, Harvard’s professor of the Practice of International Development Calestous Juma, says: “As a latecomer, Africa is entering the field of global science facing major challenges but also opportunities.
“It can build on the vast quantities of scientific and technical knowledge available worldwide to solve local problems in fields such as agriculture, water, health, education and environment.
“The strategic focus for Africa should therefore be on generating research that has immediate local use. It is through such strategies that Africa will be able to make its own unique contributions to the global scientific enterprise.
“Achieving this goal will require a focus on building a new generation of research universities that are focused on problem-solving and have direct links with enterprises and local communities.
“While the focus in industrialised countries is ‘science and technology’, Africa’s challenges call for ‘technology and science’.”
Certainly, the will is there. The key issue is how significant a part ideas from Africa will play within the future of global scientific research. On this, Justin Jonas is optimistic.
“The MeerKAT radio telescope, designed and being built by South Africa as an SKA precursor, will be the most powerful instrument in its class until the construction of the SKA,” he says.
“Initiatives such as the SKA and MeerKAT change the image that the world has of Africa, and perhaps more importantly, the image Africans have of their own continent.”
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