Science in Africa: Lessons to Learn, Mohamed H. A. Hassan

Mohamed H.A. Hassan

Executive director

TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world


African Academy of Sciences



While other regions of the developing world have enjoyed significant advances in science and technology – notably Asia and South America –Africa seems to have lagged behind. What can this region learn from the success of others?


As an African scientist who has devoted much of his career to the promotion of science and technology (S&T) in the developing world, I have been heartened by the recent progress that has been made in building scientific capacity in the South.


Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Malaysia, for example, have all made great strides in developing and utilizing S&T as part of a larger effort to promote sustainable economic development. Consequently, more than one-half of the people residing in the developing world now live in scientifically proficient countries or countries that are well on their way to becoming so. That’s a far cry from the circumstances that existed when TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, was created in 1983.


As an African scientist, however, it is painful for me to say that Africa – and particularly sub-Saharan Africa – has largely failed to participate in these encouraging trends. In fact, the state of science in the majority of sub Saharan countries has largely declined over the past three decades and, not surprisingly, so too have standards of living. Yet recent developments suggest that Africa is finally reawakening to the indispensable role that S&T, especially homegrown S&T, plays in a nation’s economic and social well-being. The TWAS Newsletter (vol. 16, no. 3/4, 2004) took a close look at the budding scientific renaissance in sub-Saharan Africa. We have reprinted the article here with some minor updates.


As in other parts of the developing world, the charge for S&T is being led by the region’s larger and relatively wealthier nations – notably South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.


As in other parts of the developing world, it is being accompanied – or perhaps more accurately, preceded – by other reforms that include advances in democracy and economic liberalization.


And, as in other parts of the developing world, the scientific advances throughout the region have been uneven, to say the least, both between and within countries. Indeed, in sub-Saharan Africa, the advances have been much more tentative and the prospects for long-term success much more problematic.


The region faces three key problems that need to be addressed satisfactorily if meaningful progress is to continue in countries where it has taken root and spread to countries where it has not.


First, there is the issue of scientific capacity and leadership in both research and education. Sub-Saharan Africa, a victim of decades of neglect and misguided policies (sometimes self-imposed), is woefully lacking in scientific capacity, even when compared to other parts of the developing world. Universities must be improved, laboratories upgraded and teaching reinvigorated, all for the purposes of creating a critical mass of well-trained scientists within each country capable of conducting first-class research and training.


Second, there is the issue of weak institutions – both those that fund science and those that do science. As a result, ministries of science and technology must be given both the authority and adequate budgets to develop effective S&T policies and implement programmes. Similarly, universities and research centres must be granted the freedom and resources to develop vigorous curricula and nurture an open, innovative environment where world-class classroom study and laboratory experiments can take place and bear fruit.


Third, there is the issue of the disconnection between science practice and science policy. For the past three decades, the science that did take place in sub-Saharan Africa was not only severely limited in scope but also often carried out in isolation from the region’s critical economic and social problems. Such a separation between science and society must be overcome, not only for the sake of society but also for the sake of science. Only when the public benefits directly from science will sustained public support be forthcoming.


Given the difficult challenges that Africa faces, what strategies should be pursued to promote both science and science-based economic development? What, in short, would represent a reasonable roadmap for success?


First, each nation should develop a national plan for S&T research and development that includes a detailed assessment of funding needs, a blueprint for institutional improvement and a set of concrete steps necessary to build and sustain S&T capacity and enhance public awareness of the benefits of S&T.


South Africa and Nigeria have developed such plans and, by systematically implementing them, have made noticeable progress over the past several years in efforts to build an infrastructure for S&T capable of addressing their nations’ needs. Other nations – both large and small – should develop their own national plans for S&T that are more than rhetorical, ‘feel-good’ documents and actually lay out achievable goals within specified time-frames.


Second, African S&T organizations should forge regional cooperative networks that enable both scientists and scientific institutions to share information and expertise and to learn from each other’s experience.


The creation of the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) is a recent example of networking in Africa worthy of note. Formed in 2001 and headquartered at the AAS in Nairobi, Kenya, NASAC is an association of the region’s 15 merit-based science academies that seeks to build the capacity of academies through a cooperative strategy emphasizing the important role of Academies in providing evidence-based and unbiased advice to government and the public. NASAC also assists the creation of merit-based science academies in African countries where they do not currently exist.


Likewise, the efforts of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) to create centres of scientific excellence in a variety of fields – centres that will open their doors to scientists throughout Africa – has the potential to significantly improve the training and research capabilities of the entire continent. Pan-African science networks devoted to such critical topics as indigenous and medicinal plants, biotechnology, information technology, renewable energy and the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases should also be encouraged as a way of enabling universities and research facilities to maximize their intellectual and financial resources.


Third, Africa should pursue partnerships in science and technology with other developing nations. Indeed such scientific cooperation is likely to grow in the future as more scientifically proficient developing countries seek to partner with the region. The pro-Africa S&T initiative between Brazil and African countries, especially Angola and Mozambique, launched in 2003, could serve as forerunner of similar exchange efforts in the years ahead.


At the same time, it is possible to foresee increasing partnerships in space science develop between China and Nigeria as both nations continue to cooperate in the application of space technologies to natural resources and communications. Still other partnerships between, say, Brazil and Uganda in areas related to biotechnology are becoming increasingly conceivable. The TWAS Fellowships for Postdoctoral Research and Advanced Training, which receives funding from the governments of Brazil, China and India, also promises to benefit scientists from Africa by enabling young researchers to receive training in centres of excellence located in those countries in the South with the most advanced scientific infrastructures.


Fourth, Africa should pursue partnerships in science and technology with developed countries. Such partnerships should focus on the training of a new generation of researchers so that the region is able to tap the scientific expertise of the North for the purposes of building its own expertise.


The days of mega-projects designed by Northern engineers and implemented by Northern consultants have come to a close. The most far-sighted donors today are dedicated to helping Africa help itself. In special issue volume 16 No. 3⁄4 (2004) of the TWAS Newsletter, we examine many of these efforts. All suggest that Africa, while having not yet turned the corner when it comes to science and science-based development, may finally be heading in the right direction – if not everywhere, at least in some places. Whether it can continue on this path remains to be seen. But for now has laid out an appropriate set of principles that promise a better future than the failed policies of the past. These principles include the need for sustained commitment and funding from national governments; an emphasis on excellence and the creation of a rewards system that ensures that the best scientists and best scientific institutions receive the most recognition and support; and a firm belief that if Africa is to join other developing regions that have learned to harness science for development, it must set its own agenda and then be willing to invest in implementing it.


Other countries in the North and South can help but Africa’s renaissance in S&T must ultimately begin – and end – at home. That is the lesson conveyed by other developing nations that are now on the way to joining the North as true partners in S&T research and development and that is the lesson that Africa must embrace for itself in the years ahead.