Empty surfaces are hard to find in Kazhila Chinsembu's office at the University of Namibia. Wherever you look - on desks, chairs or filing cabinets - there are stacks of hand-written assignments waiting to be marked. The papers are the work of Chinsembu's hundreds of undergraduate students. Considering their volume, it isn't surprising he smiles wryly when asked about his own research. He'd desperately like to spend more time on it, he says, if only he could take time away from his teaching duties.
If Chinsembu appears disheartened, it's understandable. For the past 11 years he has been engaged in a struggle to keep his research career in molecular biology afloat in the face of resource shortages, too much teaching work and political disinterest.
It was all so different a decade ago, when he returned to Africa from Europe with high hopes and good qualifications. After completing a master's degree from the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, he jumped on a plane headed for home-Zambia. For the next seven years, he battled to work and teach in laboratories that lacked even basic equipment such as centrifuges, micropipettes, and water baths. Thanks to funding from international agencies he managed to conduct research into syphilis, Kaposi's sarcoma and HIV, writing books and even a few journal articles.
But as time went on, outside funding dried up and he became progressively demoralized by the inadequate academic salary - the equivalent of about $540 US per month at the time - and university mismanagement. As a result of a university housing shortage, he and his family were forced to live in a single hostel room. At the same time, the university's vice chancellor, his deputy, and the bursar were all dismissed for misappropriating university funds. Political neglect of science made the situation all the more challenging-in the years he worked in Zambia, the university was shut down on seven occasions due to staff problems, salary disputes, student unrest or political machinations.
It's little wonder, then, that when he saw an advertisement in 2001 for a post in the science faculty of the fledgling University of Namibia (UNam), he jumped at the opportunity. Since making the move in 2002, things have been better for him professionally. Namibia, independent from South Africa since 1990, is economically and politically stable. It also offers high academic salaries (around $3,500 US per month for lecturers, compared to about $150 per month average per capita salary in the country) and the possibility of securing a mortgage to buy property, which is perhaps why roughly three-quarters of the university's academic staff come from elsewhere in Africa.
The government of Namibia has also put a strong emphasis on funding science education. While most of the money goes to primary schools, university students are eligible for bursaries or student loans. In fact, the University of Namibia is growing quickly. Of a population that is somewhere around 2 million people, there are now some 8,000 university students.
This might be good news for Namibia's young people, but it isn't so great for academics like Chinsembu who also want to do research. The 46 members of the science faculty are chronically overworked, says Enos Kiremire, dean of the university's science faculty. "You need a critical mass of teaching staff before you have time to think, to plan your research," he explains. "We have stretched ourselves too thin."
The university administrators and their political paymasters are not unaware of the poor research situation. Over the past two years, for example, they have made more funds available for research. Still, the amounts in question are relatively paltry - the entire university's research budget peaked this year at $1 million Namibian, roughly $170,000 US. Any academic who wants to conduct research at UNam must be both ingenious and determined. Kiremire himself, who lacks any sort of lab space at all, points to flasks and bottles in the corners of his office-they are filled with a range of simple chemical compounds whose potential anti-malarial properties he is testing in collaboration with groups overseas.
The experiences of Chinsembu and his colleagues are hardly unique. "African scientists generally working in under-resourced laboratories with old equipment and students trained in old laboratories," says Garth Cambray, co-editor of the online magazine Science in Africa. As a result, says the South Africa-based biotechnologist, "many of the continent's top brains are attracted out of the continent, or into industry working for multi-national corporations that pay better and have better equipment."
For decades, this has been the standard tale of African science. But in the past several years, there have been hopeful signs of change, indications that African governments are waking up to the value of science for helping lift their countries out of poverty.
THE CONTINENT GATHERS
The continent of Africa houses 54 countries, each of which has its own challenges and opportunities for science. But the changes are widespread enough to suggest something wider might be afoot. Countries such as Mozambique and Rwanda, for example, have created full-fledged science ministries for the first time while others, like Nigeria and Botswana, have begun developing national science and technology plans.
The concept of focusing Africa's science on African problems prevails across the continent.
However, perhaps the most significant hint of a sea-change in the political view of science in Africa took place in 2003, when parliamentarians from across the continent came together to form the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST). That meeting in South Africa, under the aegis of the African Union and the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), was the first such get-together of science ministers in 20 years, says Aggrey Ambali, the coordinator of the NEPAD biosciences initiative.
The fact that they reconvened just two years later, in September 2005, he says, was even more encouraging. At the second AMCOST meeting, in Dakar, Senegal, the ministers of 40 countries pledged their support for a $160 million plan to boost science and technology across the continent. The plan included 12 flagship programs, ranging from biodiversity studies to space science. The biggest items in the budget were $45 million each for the "safe development and application of biotechnology," and for securing and sustaining water.
Other major amounts are earmarked for strengthening the African Laser Center ($20 million) and building a sustainable energy base ($15 million). "There is a commitment," says Ambali, a population geneticist from Malawi. "It may not be as good as you might see in developed countries, but at least there is a response. We have to nurture this response."
FOSTERING THE CHANGE
The man whose job it is to spearhead that process is John Mugabe, director of the NEPAD office of science and technology. From his sparsely decorated office in the Pretoria campus of South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Mugabe maintains contact with a scientific and political network that spans the continent. "There is definitely increasing political and public attention and support for science and technology in Africa," he says. "It's clear that many African countries are taking it seriously."
Although he acknowledges that the AMCOST plan is currently more richly endowed with talk than action, Mugabe genuinely feels that political will is gathering. "It takes time and energy, but it has to be done," he says. "International agencies have consistently told Africa that it should not put its resources into knowledge production. We are trying to turn that around."
For some scientists, such as Kiremire, the recent emergence of science as a political priority can be seen in the context of the continent's colonial history. During much of the 20th century, he says, Africa was engaged in a "liberation struggle," often followed by brutal civil wars, military coups, famines and so on. "These all restricted the development of science," he says. In recent years, the situation on the continent has generally improved. "With the current relative stability, now is the time to focus our politicians' attention on science and development."
The question is whether the talk will translate into action. After 36 years of professional struggle, Kiremire isn't yet willing to get excited.
SEEKING HOME GROWN TALENT
Other scientists, however, are more hopeful. Godwin Kaaya, head of the department of biology at UNam, for example, senses that the new political climate might just turn the tide for African research. "I think it will have an impact," he says. "There is increasing willingness within African countries to recognize the vitality of research. It is slow, and it is gradual, but it is coming."
One research area that has already begun to see concrete benefits from the new political paradigm is biology. At the broadest level, the NEPAD Biosciences Initiative has begun establishing regional networks in the North, East, West and South of the continent. Four existing centers, all of which already have good facilities, have been chosen to act as regional hubs. In the south, the hub is at South Africa's CSIR, while in East Africa it is at the well known International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. The West Africa Biosciences Network, meanwhile, is located in the Senegalese Institute of Agricultural Research, and Egypt's National Research Center hosts the North African network.
Those hubs will help make scarce equipment and intellectual resources more widely available throughout each region, says NEPAD's Aggrey Ambali. In the north, the hub will be in Egypt and the government of that country has agreed to fund set-up costs; in the East, Rwanda has committed resources, too.
In the Southern Africa region, the regional network, SANBio, will be based at CSIR in South Africa. The government there, too, has already committed tangible resources to the project. "We've sung the song of the bad state of African science for too long," says Ambali. "Our aim is now to spread capacity and transfer knowledge. If we can't achieve that then the whole thing is a failure."
"Lesotho, for example, could use people from CSIR to help them build a tissue culture capacity," he says. "We know that we have places that are doing good science... we are trying to take advantage of those pockets of capacity."
South Africa clearly plays host to many of those pockets. On a graph of African research capacity, the southern-most country - with its annual expenditure on R&D in the region of 10,000 million rand (about $1.6 billion US) and researcher headcount of 30,000 - would be an extreme outlier.
At the CSIR, just one of several research councils, there are few of the equipment shortages that plague most other African centers. The 280 staff in the Council's food, biological and chemical technologies unit - known as the CSIR Biosciences unit - are engaged in cutting-edge molecular biology, work that requires costly machines and consumables that scientists in neighboring countries can only dream about.
On a quick tour of the Plant Biotechnology group, for example, group leader Rachel Chikwamba can show a visitor through functional genomics laboratories where researchers are focusing on gene mining in indigenous plants to look for, among other things, compounds with anti-malarial properties. Down the hall, researchers such as Therese Lottere are developing transgenic plants expressing a monoclonal antibody against the rabies virus. Another group is working to build plants with fortified expression of vitamins, essential amino acids and micronutrients, as a means to combat the malnutrition that is a major problem for South Africa and the continent as a whole.
Meanwhile, CSIR researchers in other groups are using transgenic bacteria as a means of producing HIV drugs more cheaply, and applying aptamer technology to identify new antiretrovirals and to develop new diagnostic tools.
AFRICAN SCIENCE FOR AFRICA
The researchers at CSIR focus on problems like HIV, rabies, malaria, and malnutrition because the organization's mandate specifies that it must conduct work in the national interest. But the concept of focusing Africa's science on African problems prevails across the continent.
It makes sense, given the scale of those problems and the scarcity of money for conducting research. "We have to focus our resources on areas of concern, and also on areas where we have a relative advantage-for example by investigating indigenous knowledge," says Berhanu Abegaz, a professor in the University of Botswana (UB) chemistry department.
There's also a matter of pride. As another scientist asks, "Why should it be that AIDS is so largely an African disease, yet the virus was discovered by a Frenchman and an American?"
Abegaz and his colleagues at UB work under conditions that are neither as resource-starved as their peers in Namibia, nor as comfortable as their neighbors in South Africa. The student labs are spacious and well-equipped and the research labs are stocked with HPLC machines, thermocyclers and so on. They also share between them big-ticket items like electron microscopes and mass spectrometers.
These days the faculty trains dozens of PhD students and has a healthy research program. For example, in the school of biological sciences, headed by Marks Ditlhogo, projects have focused on screening for antimicrobial activity in certain types of clay used locally to treat skin and stomach complaints. Another line of research is investigating the ecological impacts of harvesting indigenous foods-including plants, animals and insects such as edible caterpillars.
"You need a critical mass of teaching staff before you have time to think, to plan your research. We have stretched ourselves too thin."
The situation was vastly different 10 years ago, when the university's science faculty offered nothing more than undergraduate courses, recalls the former dean of science Sisai Mpuchane. "I think for scientists generally this is an interesting time," she says. "It was just a few years ago that the government set up a ministry of science and technology. Without that we were marginalized."
That important step was, in fact, just one of many that the Botswana government has planned to improve the science landscape. Others include the establishment of a second national university dedicated specifically to science and technology, plus the development of a national innovation plan that includes raising R&D spending to one percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
As positive as these advances are, however, it is worth remembering that the total budget for innovation in Botswana is only 20% of the budget for South Africa's CSIR, which is itself a fraction of total government expenditure. And over the past few years, UB's infrastructure spending has halved.
Another important factor is non-government funding. In South Africa, government science funds are dwarfed by the research spending by private industry. In Botswana, such industry cash is almost non-existent.
If you're not working on applied science, then your problems in Africa can be even more severe. About 10 minutes drive from UB is the National Botanic Garden of Botswana, a center that survives by the skin of its teeth under the auspices of the country's National Museum.
Bruce Hargreaves, principal curator for natural history at the museum, can show you around the wild-looking gardens and point out many fascinating plants such as the elephant root tree whose tuberous root is used in tanning, or the lavender bush, whose leaves are a natural insect repellant.
What's less in evidence is a government willingness to fund the basic botanical research he and his colleagues should be doing to document their country's extensive biodiversity. "They want applied science, and don't seem to get the connection between basic and applied research," he says.
Like many of his peers, Hargreaves manages to conduct research, to gather specimens and operate the garden, through ingenuity. "The basic problem in Africa is funding," he says. "You have to be innovative to find the funding. It's rough and tumble science."
THE HUNT FOR CASH
For many researchers, the hunt for funding involves looking overseas. Organizations such as USAID, the European Union, the Wellcome Trust and the near-ubiquitous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation keep a lot of projects alive. International collaborations are also vital sources of cash, and new plans are announced on a weekly basis. Recently, for example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, reported that they were joining a project to develop a form of sorghum with more easily digested proteins.
The consortium they joined is the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. As project leader Florence Wambugu said in April, "all the project consortium members are delighted that researchers from UC-Berkeley, will be joining the team."
In Namibia, the reliance of researchers on outside funding is made plain by a tour of the government's central veterinary laboratory in the capital, Windhoek. The laboratory, with a staff of roughly 30, is responsible for surveillance of diseases including avian influenza as well as diagnostics.
The lab's staff members are well paid and the equipment they have is adequate to do their jobs, explains the joint head of the lab, Georgina Tjipura Zaire. But when it comes to using those resources for crucial research, the story is different. "We're lucky enough to be funded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agriculture Organization," says Zaire. Without that external funding, research would be impossible.
Even the grand plans of AMCOST and NEPAD assume that large amounts of funding are going to be coming from donor agencies and the private sector. "Obviously, Africa would like to be able to rely on its own resources," says John Mugabe. He doesn't say so, but it's clear that for now that wish lies some distance from reality.
WOOING THE DIASPORA
Until that distance closes, the temptation for Africa's scientists to pursue their careers overseas will remain strong. It's a problem that Alpha Oumar Konare, president of the African Union, railed against in April at a meeting in Algeria. Konare attacked the immigration policies of developed countries, which he claimed draw scientists away from developing countries. These policies amount to a "brain trade" that hinders African development, he said.
According to the Science and Development Network - an organization funded by the UK and Swedish governments, among others - Algeria's foreign minister Mohammed Bedjaoui told the same meeting that 23,000 university graduates leave Africa each year and that the brain drain is "a cause rather than a consequence of under-development."
But senior African scientists say that infrastructure and equipment at home are key factors that will encourage scientists to return home. "Equipment for research is key," says Otlogetswe Totolo, dean of science at the University of Botswana. "You have to create an environment where they can thrive."
Sitting in his office in the Namibian capital, Kazhila Chinsembu echoes those sentiments, speaking from experience. "Most of the people who do molecular biology in the US rarely come back," he says. "Because when you come back home you find there is no equipment, and you are professionally dead."
This year’s list of winners celebrates both large leaps and small (but important) steps in life science technology.