Move over, Mr Einstein

Some of the brightest talents and most exciting advances in science from around the continent were on display at the Next Einstein Forum. This landmark meeting, initiated by the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences and held in Senegal last month, brought together nearly 1 000 researchers, entrepreneurs, businesses and policymakers from across Africa to celebrate and support the continent’s most promising early-career researchers.

A new cadre of 15 Next Einstein Fellows and 54 ambassadors was announced, and the forum ended with a declaration of commitment to Africa’s role in world-leading, locally relevant science. This was accompanied by a call for greater investment by African governments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, particularly for women.

The journal Nature was impressed, noting in an editorial that “this forum was significant. It showed what powerful commitment there is to be tapped in this emerging generation of young African scientists.”

Optimism about science in countries on the continent has ebbed and flowed, as strategies and targets have emerged with a fanfare, only to be quietly dropped in the face of more pressing priorities.

But Unesco’s latest global audit of science, published at the end of 2015, concludes that science is on the rise across the continent. The number of journal articles published in African countries rose by 60% from 2008 to 2014. Research investment rose from $12.9-billion in 2007 to $19.9-billion in 2013. Over the same period, research and development expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product nudged upwards from 0.36% to 0.45%, and the population of active researchers expanded from 150 000 to 190 000.

As the volume and quality of research by scientists from countries on the continent grows, more attention is being paid to how it is being used, and what structures exist to bring evidence and expertise into decision-making. Here, the landscape is uneven.

National academies of science are now used as a source of policy advice in several countries. A few, including South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria and Egypt, have appointed science advisory councils.

Chief scientists or ministerial advisers are far more rare. A recent review by Thiambi Netshiluvhi of the department of science and technology found “inadequate capacity” and “poor use of diverse structures” for scientific advice in most African countries.

New network established
Now a new network has been launched to boost capacity at the science-policy interface. INGSA-Africa is an offshoot of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), itself established in 2014, following the first global summit on science advice to governments.

With backing from the International Council for Science, INGSA-Africa aims to support scientists, policymakers, practitioners and national academies to share experience, build capacity and strengthen the use of scientific evidence in policy across the continent.

Its launch follows a training workshop for early-career scientists, which took place in South Africa at the end of February, with participants from 14 African countries.

That workshop had space for only 45 scientists, but almost 600 applied to attend, suggesting a level of unmet demand which INGSA-Africa will try to address. Further training sessions are planned for Senegal, Ethiopia and Egypt, and teaching materials are being developed, using real policy dilemmas to highlight how scientific advice can operate in practice. Several of the founding members of INGSA-Africa will also participate in the next global summit on scientific advice to governments, which will take place in Brussels in September.

Dr Tolu Oni is involved in INGSA-Africa, as a member of its steering group, and the Next Einstein Forum, as one of its newly appointed fellows. Oni, who works as a senior lecturer in public health medicine at the University of Cape Town, says science advice is now high on the agenda in South Africa. She wants INGSA-Africa to play a role “in co-ordinating efforts and developing a more structured, methodological approach to the ways we do it”.

Over time, she suggests it “has the potential to become the go-to network for training, so that academies, young academics and others use it to develop the skills of the next generation of scientific advisers. Science advice is a skill and it can be taught.”

Sir Peter Gluckman, New Zealand’s chief scientist and founding chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice, agrees: “There’s no shortage of insight, skill and energy across Africa’s science community that can help to develop robust advisory processes. I’m impressed by the group of scientists who have taken this on, and look forward to INGSA-Africa making an important contribution.”

Of course, science in African countries still faces huge challenges of deep inequalities, under-investment, weak infrastructure and brain drain.

But there are a growing number of people, places and projects that give reasons to be optimistic. And as Africa’s research base strengthens, the next task is to bring more of its evidence and expertise into decision-making, in ways that can help to meet local priorities and global goals.– © Guardian News & Media 2016

James Wilsdon is professor of research policy in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, and vice-chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice.

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