Empowering the African Scientific Community

Christine Darve

More than 50 years after the independence of a large number of African countries, and the first election in Ghana (of Kwame Nkrumah), Africa aspires to achieve scientific progress and shows signs of a promising future evolution.

With more than one billion inhabitants living in the 53 African countries, and with enormous and rich natural resources, Africa is a major economic asset for the future of the planet. The diversity of Africa is spanned across its cultures, its climates, its histories and its political and economic systems. The integration of Africa into the international economic system still remains tentative and many challenges remain.

On the one hand, due to the large public debt, and uncontrolled diseases and malnutrition, a large number of people are moving into the cities, or emigrating to richer countries. On the other hand, a few key countries are building outstanding scientific capacities within Africa to support its autonomy and its integrity.

Education and industrialization are essential to promote positive developments. Scientific research in Africa is becoming more vibrant, although the initial gap between the African universities and those in the developed countries in scientific and technical investment is huge. Half of 1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is spent in Africa on R&D compared to 2 % in Europe and the US. The figure shows the distribution of university education in Africa and the tables show the number of researchers and R&D expenditures in many African countries.

Although today, very few patents and publications originate from Africa, the situation is evolving thanks to partnerships between individual African countries, and between the African continent and other continents as well as to efforts from the international scientific community. Below we illustrate a few initiatives, which contribute to creating a path to knowledge in Africa and address some of the major challenges.

The new generation of policy-makers in Africa are more assertive and endorse science and technology. This aspiration increases productivity and helps cope with current issues which paralyze Africa’s development in the sciences and its applications. Local centers for medical applications, pandemics treatments, life sciences, materials, energy, environmental sciences, earth sciences and engineering studies are growing across the continent. The goal of those initiatives is to catalyze the development of world-class institutions through the production of high–quality scientists and engineers to stimulate economic growth and employment creation. Pursuant to this goal, the objective is to produce the next generation of African scientists and engineers by training them in the necessary technical, entrepreneurial and leadership capacities to solve African problems thus contributing to economic and social transformation.

One of the most dynamic institutions supporting these objectives is the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste.  Founded in 1964 by the late Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam, ICTP’s mission is to provide scientists from developing countries with continuing education and skills in the sciences, hence counteracting the scientific brain drain from the developing world.

In addition, local African initiatives are progressing. The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha (Tanzania) has been established as one in a network of African Institutions of Science and Technology (AISTs) in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). The AISTs develop the next generation of African scientists, engineers and technologists, who will impact on the continent’s development through the application of science, engineering and technology.

Another example of excellence is the establishment of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in 2003 in Cape Town. The success of AIMS has encouraged the opening of new centers in Senegal, Ethiopia and extending to more countries in the future. Each center welcomes 50 African students in a self-contained residential center with excellent computer, library and lecture facilities.

The African School of Fundamental Physics and its Applications (ASP) represents an itinerant initiative, providing a 3-week program given by renowned professors to more than 70 selected African students. The school is being organized in a Sub-Saharan African country every second year and it is based on a close interplay between theoretical, experimental, and applied physics.

University partnerships are more frequently created in partnership with European and North American institutions. Lund University has trained African students using on-line classes on environment topics. The Dunlap Institute and Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) at the University of Toronto in Canada, are partnering with the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) and Center for Basic Space Sciences (CBSS) of Nigeria to hold a week long school for West African undergraduate science majors in Abuja, Nigeria in October 2013.

Beyond education, large-scale science facilities will play a central role in the rising visibility of the African continent. “New synergies between the European Union and the African Union are underway, and new large-scale facilities which will embrace initiatives for African student training are being proposed”, said Colin Carlile, lately the Director General of the European Spallation Source in Sweden and before that of the Institute Laue-Langevin.

Carlile speaks admiringly of the initiative and energy applied in South Africa to attract the huge Square Kilometer Array Radio Telescope. “This project is proving to be a catalyst in bringing Africa as a whole into international prominence”, he says. “Outreach activities in particular are proving to be very effective, and the conversion of disused telecommunication dishes in many African countries into effective radio telescope dishes, is providing training in the science as well as opportunities in project management. This creates a sense of ownership, which extends well beyond the site itself in South Africa. Equally well, the provision of a high-speed optic fibre data transmission network along the African coast is bringing experience with high technology and providing employment over wide swathes of the continent.”

The South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) promotes science to support development within the continent. The Square Kilometer Array Project (SKA SA) is an international project supported by the Department of Science and Technology, administered by the National Research Foundation and has several African and European partners as well as a second site in Australia. SKA SA is currently designing and constructing the MeerKAT Radio Telescope in the Karoo Region of Northern Cape Province. MeerKAT is a world-class radio telescope and is designed to do ground-breaking science as well as being a prototype test-bed to iron out potential pitfalls in the building and operation of SKA. Newly-formed collaborations between the European partner countries and the African partner countries have resulted in a high visibility of African activities in Brussels and beyond.

So, despite the constant challenge of political instability in some targeted countries, education and scientific motivation act as remedies against entropy and chaos. African institutes supported by the international scientific community bridge the research and industrial progress gaps by developing local expertise, henceforth supporting democracy. The signs are very positive and upward trends are becoming quite evident and truly welcome.

percentages of each country on the continent of Africa
Source: Le Journal du CNRS, no. 244, Mai 2010.

tables from Darve's Africa data

Christine Darve, a member of the FIP Executive Committee, is an Engineering Scientist in the Accelerator Division of the European Spallation Source (ESS AB P.O. Box 176, SE-221 00 Lund, Sweden). Dr Darve is a member of the International Organization Committee of the biannual African School of Fundamental Physics and its Applications and has been the main organizer of its first edition, ASP2010.

Editor’s note: See Darve’s article on ASP 2010 in our Spring 2011 issue and a short report on ASP 2012 in our Fall 2012 issue.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.