Africa does not want to be a by-stander in global science


Africa does not want to be a by-stander in global science

African higher education institutions should not be taken as a cheap source of research assistants and local consultants. Geopolitical situation allows Africans to pick their friends based on best offer. Yet, weaknesses in African societies and economy are also reflected in African higher education and research sector.

‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt’. African proverb’.  Geopolitical tensions, insecurity and concerns of misuse of technologies are also felt in the international research community. Countries are retreating to their perceived comfortable home bases and even essentially global activities such as research collaboration is becoming more sensitive. For African higher education sector, this is both the blessing and curse. 

More room to develop own African approaches and choose partners

In the recent book ‘ Technology Integration in Higher Education in Africa: Philosophical, theoretical, and policy-practice perspectives’ published in the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), Delali Amuzu (University of Ghana) argues that African ideas, science, technology, scholarship and worldviews have been disproportionately displaced and marginalised in relevant global dialogues causing apprehension.

He continues that these negative attitudes are internalized resulting in the exteriorization of innovation and creativity. The interaction of two components of traditional African education – a sense of community and informal learning – could assist in the embrace, facilitation, and mainstreaming of marginalized African technologies. In the same book, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld, Ann Bygholm (Aalborg University, Denmark), and Geoffrey Olok Tabo (Gulu University, Uganda) claim that there is a need for strategic revision of university education in its entirety. The proposed revision grounded in African knowledge systems, is consistent with pan-Africanism, the African Renaissance, decolonial movements, the African Union 2063 Agenda, and the 2030 UN sustainable development goals. 

Inter-African cooperation, South-South partnership and new alliances such as BRICS by African HEIs are often aimed to cease the dependency on Western dominance and resources to develop African own approaches and alternative technology. As Cameroonian sociologist Francis Nyamnjoh once famously quoted: African researchers are like pot plants, given water to grow but in a limited space. African scholars call for more respect, autonomy and own resources means that many African HEIs seek new partnerships and continue to pursue open science. Overall, African countries want to re-enforce the old notion of non-alignment and refuse to pick sides. 

The good news is that longstanding efforts to build scientific capacity and develop African science systems are starting to yield positive outcomes.  Africa’s share of global academic publication output has more than doubled from 1.5% in 2005 to 3.2% in 2016, and the citation impact of African-authored papers has been increasing steadily over the past 30 years from 0.48 in 1980 to 0.73% in 2014. Despite most African countries ignoring the African Union calls for 1,5 % GDP input for R&D, some new positive developments can also be recorded. South African president announced the establishment of about US$54 million Presidential PhD Initiative, which will fund doctoral studies in strategic and critical areas such as artificial intelligence research, advanced biotechnology, fuel cell development, batteries and other storage, and next-generation mining. Africa is among others critical in space and astronomy research and related technological innovations thanks to its geographical position on earth and joint investment in advanced satellites and know-how.  

External and internal societal challenges spill over to research community 

Due to mere demographical factors, Europe is as dependent from African as in the contrary. Even if migration flows are always a topic of complain, in reality, talented, creative and resilient African students and scholars are more needed than ever in the Global North. For long time Asian students have been an important economic factor for many European, American and Oceanic universities by paying tuition fees, and many of them have stayed and become productive taxpayers in those societies. Now, with growing technological competition, worry of double use of technology, espionage and China’s own internal political and economic trends, the mobility patterns might be changing for the benefit of Africa and Latin America. Recently, discussion has surfaced on new science visas to promote academic mobility that suffer from new immigration laws and policies in Europe and UK. 

Another good example of mutual research interest is the joint AU-EU Innovation Agenda 2023, agreed within the broader collaboration agreement ‘ A joint Vision for 2030’. The agreement stems from both continents’ aspiration to build future relations on a more equal footing and mutual partnership. The cooperation consists e.g. of 20 joint Clusters of Research Excellence (CoREs), increased Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ funding and support to innovative start-up ecosystem with a total investment package reaching up to 150 billion EUR. 

African countries are not shying away from the fact that external funds for research infrastructure, development of new methods of learning, integration & adaptation of new technologies and best practices as well as scholarship for PhDs and post-docs are constantly needed. Government and private funding is welcome, but Africa is trying to raise its own voice to avoid neocolonial attitudes paired with investment. Strong demands for the African continent to pick sides as regards to geopolitical alliances is turning against Europe even with generous funding offers, as Tunisian example shows. Science diplomacy is all about respecting each other and learn from each other’s positions. 

While global tensions are raising, also within Africa the long-standing positive development trend wading. The continental survey organisation Afrobarometer has recently measured the mood of the continent and found widening disappointment as the dominant mood among the population, particularly the youth. The increasing autocratic tendencies, narrowing space for freedom of expression and civil liberties as well as deep governance failures such as corruption and mismanagement have started to spread to African research sector as well. Professor Jonathan Jansen, former president of Academy of Science South Africa (ASSAf) has in his recent book ‘Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities’  expressed his worry about lack of leadership widening mal-practices and corruption at the South African universities. The malfunction of government and its institutions as well many social ills in South Africa are replicated in its 26 public universities of which 6 are best in the whole continent. Similar phenomena are also observed in other African countries. Both public and rapidly growing private university sector have faced many political and economic as well internal challenges such as plagiarism, cheating and degree racketeering for example in Nigeria. 

‘‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets hurt’. Africa and its innovative population will lose on a battleground of geopolitical division and domestic politicking. Now, we need some African wisdom to protect the global research and innovation enterprise to tackle the global challenges together. 

Text: Iina Soiri
Photo Tiina Salola: South Africa is the science giant on the continent. Deputy Director Daan du Toit of Department of Science and Innovation speaks at Finnish Independence Reception at South African Science Forum 2023