Five reflections on Africa’s higher education in science

Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video
Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video

By: Nick Ishmael Perkins – SciDev.Net

Last night I sat on a panel convened by the Planet Earth Institute and hosted by the African Union at its mission to the UN. The event was an attempt to explore the intersection of higher education funding, the growth of science and technology (S&T) in Africa and the post-2015 development agenda, which is a priority at the UN General Assembly here in New York.

I thought I would share a few moments that struck me throughout the evening.

First, Álvaro Sobrinho, the founder and board chair of the Planet Earth Institute, found himself doing what often happens when the institute introduces its mission to a new audience — explaining it. The institute’s raison d’être is scientific independence for Africa.

Sobrinho offered a number of interpretations of scientific independence, all around the theme of empowerment, such as the ability to produce and keep scientists, and for African problems to be resolved by Africans. I suppose having an unusual term such as scientific independence provides an opportunity to build a meme (and capture the imagination) but the idea needs to be made concrete and, as it became clear last night, the institute needs to navigate the language of partnership, which is even more dominant in the discourse on the successors to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) than it was in the formulation of the MDGs themselves.

Second, four different people called for a social movement around science in Africa throughout the course of the evening. Before the event had even started, Tade Akin Aina, programme director for higher education and libraries in Africa at Carnegie Corporation of New York, was lamenting the unrealised role of civil society. This is a genuinely interesting idea. We know that around the world audiences are demanding more S&T content from their media. Could this translate into a movement? Could we be seeing a moment here? But if it is, somebody should tell civil society because there weren’t many from that stakeholder group in the audience last night.

Third, Amina Mohammed, the secretary-general’s special advisor on post-2015 development planning, made a few sobering contributions about the “big fight ahead”. The UN consultations resulted in enough responses to generate 100 new goals, she said, but they need to be concise and politically expedient. (“We want something light enough to fly but heavy enough to make an impact.”)

The intergovernmental process that will occur over the next two years means more negotiation before we have something to replace the MDGs. The S&T communities cannot afford to sit back and hope for the best: they need to make the case for investment and engage a global constituency. Afterwards, a UNESCO staffer told me that even across the UN community here in New York, S&T are seen as a bore.

Fourth, Makhtar Diop, vice-president for Africa at the World Bank, said that less than 20 per cent of higher education investment in Africa has gone to S&T. This is reflected in the fact that, in spite of recent economic growth across much of the continent, most economies remain structured around commodities, and the ground work to achieve the much-longed-for diversification into knowledge economies remains unrealised. As Diop said, efforts to alter an economy’s structure require changes to its productive base, such as investing in the availability of scientists. This was underscored during the Q&A when someone from Cameroon said his classmates were bright enough to be scientists but they didn’t choose to study this at university because they needed to eat and the economy didn’t offer opportunities in that area.

Fifth, finally, there were a few salutary lessons from the United Kingdom about pitfalls to avoid when building higher education for science. Sir Christopher Edwards described the lack of gender parity and the under-representation of people from publicly funded schools in renowned science faculties in the UK. He called for innovative solutions to these enduring challenges. It was distressing and curiously inspiring, reminding us that a better world must be possible.

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