Why we must re-educate African science
When will Africa produce a Nobel Prize in science? Perhaps the closest the continent has come is Philip Emeagwali, who many have dubbed the "father" of the Internet. But the African content on the Internet was a paltry 0.4% of global content a few years ago, and if South Africa's contribution was excluded, the figure was a mere 0.02%. Africans are members of the global village, but by 2001, out of the approximately 816 million people in Africa, only 5 million used the Internet. This disparity could be explained by the simple reason that while "cooperatives" of villagers in the Asian Tigers assemble computers for export to Africa, the African counterparts mend dusty roads in food-for-work programs.
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There is need to fast-track our scientific enterprise, and make sure the voice of African scientists is unambiguous. What is the position of African scientists when the Food and Agriculture Organization dissuades the use of DDT in agriculture, while the World Health Organization endorses it for mosquito control?
On the other hand, the continent's development efforts have failed to make progress because the response has often been political. Undoubtedly, political leadership has failed science in most of Africa-sometimes corrupting erudite scientists to become political stooges. The media has not helped matters either, with politicians lionized in headlines while inventors, scientists and technologists are largely anonymous.
Although we should equip our research labs and provide more funds for consumables, we cannot wait for scientific solutions to emerge from sophisticated high-tech laboratories. At the Sokoine University in Tanzania, for example, researchers are using giant African rats to sniff out tuberculosis, an effort that will speed treatment in rural settings without laboratories.
Neither has the typical route to a PhD through study overseas helped African science. Although African students excel in oversees universities, some of these graduates are caught off-guard by the desperate lack of infrastructure, and sometimes by the sheer irrelevance, of their donor-driven training. The "sandwich" model of PhD training is a good start, but we cannot remain in the middle forever- we have to localize skills training in our critical areas of need. I am not suggesting African scientists should not train overseas. On the contrary, the creation of our own centers of excellence in critical research areas will give our scientists the edge to crack local problems and collaborate more effectively with the outside. Our science cannot be competitive overseas when it is weak at home.
Frankly, the lack of relevant and adequate local scientific or technological skills has created a developmental time lag in most African countries. What then can be done to usher African science to the tipping edge of development? Governments and an African Union/NEPAD Council of Science could take the lead in the following ways:
It is vital that the scientific landscape in Africa trails the contours of the continent's needs. The question, therefore, is not whether Africa should reject science it does not own, but whether Africa should reject irrelevant and unsustainable science. The crux of the matter lies in the urgency to grow a cadre of scientists whose skills are inextricably linked to Africa's development. Our sciences will be meaningless if they cannot be converted into goods and services to roll back the threats of hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and poverty.
Kazhila Chinsembu is a lecturer at the University of Namibia.