Africa... ... the “Dark Continent” in the scientific spotlight
Even today, Africa is still considered the epitome of underdevelopment: It is the continent with the most cases of AIDS, the highest infant mortality rate in the world, and corruption.
But things have been changing in recent years. Rapid economic growth is creating new attitudes and is helping to emancipate African countries. Developments in the sciences and in research also give the young generation hope for change.
Once Upon a Time... ...there was a continent where the sciences were strong
Unlike today, Africa has not always been uncharted territory on the scientific map.
Al Azhar University was founded in Cairo in 975 and has been one of the most important Islamic university in the world for centuries.
Just seven years later, the University of Timbuktu was founded, whose enrollment totaled as many as 25,000 students during the 11th century.
Not Any More
Today, only 2% of scientific publications worldwide stem from countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, three-fourths of scientific knowledge originate in countries in the northern hemisphere.
One of the greatest problems that the continent is facing is the enormous brain drain in the sciences: 40% of researchers born in Africa live and work in OECD countries.
And yet the African continent, with its young population, possesses great potential and is already producing numerous talented young academics and researchers.
Strengthening Africa’s Academics
Africa is full of intelligent people - but many researchers are not able to fully realize their potential. The infrastructure for good research conditions and the international attention for Africa’s enormous talent just are not there.
To change this, the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) have launched the first pan-African academic conference: the Next Einstein Forum (NEF).
The Objectives The Next Einstein Forum is intended to:
1. Establish Africa as an international hub for science and academics
2. Connect researchers in Africa
3. Provide momentum for the development of the continent
Under the motto of “Connecting Science to Humanity,” there were numerous discussions on topics of research policy. A select group of young academics presented their findings from the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
A Breath of Fresh Air from Young Researchers
The stage belonged to 15 NEF Fellows who represented the generation of young African scientists and academics by showing their research - in front of a very young audience: Half of the conference’s participants were under the age of 42. Typical Africa?
Here, Egyptian Sherien Elagroudy speaks about waste removal and recycling.
...come from eight countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and South Africa.
They conduct research on various topics, be it cyber security or big data, the big bang from the perspective of mathematical physics, or the reciprocal effects between unhealthy nutrition and an increased risk of heart disease.
Tolu Oni ...is one of the NEF Fellows
The Nigerian researches the way environmental factors – in particular urbanization – influence the course of illnesses.
For her, an academic conference such as the Next Einstein Forum was long overdue.
"So having been to a few international conferences and foreign meetings on science, the one thing that is consistently absent is the African voice, even when Africa is being discussed. So I think this Next Einstein Forum meeting is overdue.
There is a real unique opportunity here to own that global stage and to show that, yes there are challenges of conducting science on the continent, but there is a huge amount of scientific advances and scientists
This is the opportunity to put them on the stage talking about the kind of science they are doing and the way their science is being applied for societal challenges in Africa and societal challenges globally."
...studied informatics and physics at Leipzig University. The Cameroonian is primarily involved with the topics of big data and the semantic Web.
He bemoans the fact that a lack of funds, manpower, and infrastructure has led to African academics often not being able to conduct their research in their home countries.
“The first thing that has to be done is to create new prospects. We have to be able to offer people something that allows them to really make a difference.
Ultimately, that means a certain freedom to conduct research, to become familiar with specific topics, and to find solutions.
A lot of infrastructure is required. In order to achieve academic and scientific excellence, we need the corresponding labs that have the right hardware and software, as well as just the manpower. Some things in the sciences are merely brute force.”
During his youth, he witnessed the devastating effects of the HI-virus in South Africa. Today, he is searching for new treatment methods for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.
"I realize that, as a scientist, I have the responsibility to tackle scientific problems that are relevant for the continent."
"Africa... We appreciate that many countries recently in Africa have been really growing in terms of economy. But what I think is really needed to really translate the growth economically is proper investment. We need commitment, we need investment, infrastructure we need funding, we need support.
So, Africa is on the right track and Africa has skilled people. Then African countries have also shown capacity to really grow an effort in investment and infrastructure. We just need implementation, we need action and that involves drive in science."
Investing in the Future
At the moment, only a few countries in Africa are investing heavily in the expansion of cutting-edge research.
But the future of both the next generation and of science depends on this type of investment.
“I have talked with many students who are extremely dedicated, who want to accomplish a lot, who could accomplish a lot, and who would really only need some mentorship.
All they would need is a little guidance. How can we do that? It’s not as though there were no potential – it’s unbelievable how many students there are here. But they need to be shown the way:
You need to do X and Y; you should publish your paper there; papers need to be written differently; you need to conduct the experiment differently; you have to do this and that so they are scientifically valid; and so on and so forth.”
The African scientific community is faced with the particular challenge of meeting two demands:
On the one hand, it should contribute more significantly to solving Africa’s problems. On the other hand, it should demonstrate its relevance on a global stage.
The NEF intends to help achieve both goals.
"I just want to highlight though that in talking about developing the continent, that we exist within a global society.
And no society progresses without an exchange of ideas. So it is important that we give our scientists the same exposure as more developed countries and regions have where you can go and gain different experiences from all over the world.
But with a clear sense of how you can use that knowledge gained to contribute to building the society."
Meeting on an Equal Footing
It is time for Western countries to say goodbye to the stereotype of the underdeveloped continent.
The young NEF Fellows prove that Africa has people with ambition and talent. They have already brought a level of international visibility to the continent. Many young researchers are simply waiting for a chance to take the global scientific stage and to make Africa a center of research and technology.
Staying in Motion
The Next Einstein Forum has laid an important cornerstone for Africa’s path to becoming an academic continent.
Implementing ideas, expanding networks, and keeping promises are the tasks now at hand.
If this is accomplished, then important milestones will have been reached, upon which Africa’s scientific community can build at the next Next Einstein Forum in Rwanda in two years.
More information on the forum and the Fellows on www.nef.org