Africans advocate for inclusive strategy to advance science

Fellows attend the annual African Academy of Science meeting.

Africa needs an all-inclusive strategy on science communication to promote science, technology and innovation, especially in agriculture, health, education and manpower development. That was the key takeaway from the 13th annual African Academy of Science meeting held last week in Abuja, Nigeria.

Stakeholders and fellows of the African Academy of Science have expressed worry that not enough attention is given to the role research can play in education and manpower development in Africa — factors that have clearly shaped the economies of developed countries. Finding solutions to this challenge was the major concern expressed by the more than 250 delegates present at the meeting, which gathered fellows and delegates from 34 African countries and five National Academy of Science executive secretariats from Canada, Switzerland, New Zealand and the United States.

Highly skilled individuals from Africa migrate to developed industrial countries in search of opportunities for economic advancement, said Ajayi Borrofice, senate chairman of science and technology in Nigeria and the conference’s keynote speaker. If African countries do not prioritize research, they will be at risk of not meeting up with other developed countries.

The Nigerian government has made efforts to solve this situation by approving national research and innovation funds to make the nation a knowledge-based economy, he noted. The minister of science and technology is a core member of the economic revitalization plan. The ministry also pays attention to the use of innovative technologies like biotechnology to improve areas of health, nutrition, and food security in Nigeria.

The problems of Africans are similar and solutions should be similar, said Mosto Onuoha, president of the Nigeria Academy of Science.  The Academy is uniquely positioned to bring scientific knowledge to bear on the policies and strategic direction of the country, and is dedicated to the development and advancement of science, technology and innovation in Nigeria, he added.

It is generally believed in all developing African countries that education is key to unlocking all the forces of economic growth and development. Research and experience from developed nations have shown that as the economy grows larger and more complex, so does the desire for high-level manpower. It is not surprising that Africa, which can be described as a late-comer in modern education, is devoting large portions of its government expenditures to education.

The world has become aware in recent times of the magnitude of the changes resulting from advances in and the intensive application of technology. Scientific and technological expertise has become so important that it is starting to replace capital as society’s most important resource. The efficiency of a nation’s educational system is a major factor that determines its economic well-being, its standard of living and its potential growth and security.

Eli Babe, who represented the minister of science and technology, said the ministry recognizes the relevance of science, technology and innovation (STI) in propelling global changes by creating opportunities in the fields of agriculture, health, engineering, environment and industry, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space research, etc. If Nigeria is to attain global footing, STI must be given importance. The federal government recognizes the strategic role of NAS to make scientific decisions and policy that will proffer scientific solutions to the government, he added.

The Uganda Academy of Sciences, represented by its secretary general, David Bakibinga, indicated that the Ugandan government has shown a lot of interest in promoting science, although programs are not yet fully implemented in the country. He said this has resulted in incidences of hunger and poverty, especially with regards to agriculture. “We need to look out for the needs of our people, especially on how biotechnology can help to feed majority of the Ugandan population,” he said. “I am proposing that the academy continues to participate in research and engage with organizations and stakeholders outside academia to ensure research addresses the common need of humankind.”

Generally, the public perception of science must be enhanced especially among secondary school students who do not believe they will get jobs if they study science. Sensitization is necessary to change their understanding and benefit the society, delegates noted.

There is now an urgent need to promote inclusive science communication in Africa. Delegates recommended that for STI to shape African economies, governments should make commitments to develop human and institutional capacities by investing substantially in high quality universities, state of the art laboratories, ICT infrastructure and research funding mechanisms. They also asked that a coalition of willing heads of state and champions of science be formed to support the national and African academies of science in lobbying governments to put their monies where their mouths are.