/ 3 February 2017

Making international engagement work for Africa – a panel discussion

Forging sustainable, long-term partnerships that will result in engagement across government, academia, business and society were among the key points raised during a thought-provoking panel discussion on “How can Africa make the most of international engagement?”

The discussion was one of several held during last year’s Science Forum South Africa (SFSA), the second instalment following the successful inaugural event held in 2015. The second SFSA was also hailed as a success largely due to the calibre of the scientists, students and policymakers attending the forum.

The panel discussion began with reflecting on what international engagement means in an African context, and what making it work would entail. In trying to answer these questions, we came up with a series of key points that help to define the issues:

  • Success requires sustainable, long-term partnerships that result from engagement between government, academia, business and society.
  • While the whole forum generated a wide range of deep conversations and discussions; we need to turn these into actions that engender change.
  • We remembered that Africa’s greatest resource is its youth, and discussed, without coming to a clear solution, how best to make use of this resource.
  • We also agreed that doing more, effective science would lead to more innovation in Africa. It is a fact that working internationally leads to be better science. The challenge is ensuring that this science and innovation is aligned with African priorities. There is also a need to critically engage with the drivers and facilitators of participation in partnerships. The barriers to these likely lie outside the scope of science, and are in the social, economic and political space.
  • Science education has somewhat stagnated. Across Africa, we focus on increasing the numbers of students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but don’t pay sufficient attention to the way science is taught and the opportunities for sparking more interest in students at all levels.
  • Potential solutions include working to promote international partnerships that encourage the complexity in science that is required to address complex challenges. However, a significant bottleneck to conducting this kind of science is that complex thought is inadequately assessed, and often reviewed by disciplinary reviewers who are not trained in this field.
  • International partnerships could also support innovation in science education, not just science, in order to change previous perceptions that science is not relevant to society, and to embrace complex thinking at earlier ages.
  • On policy, how can we incentivise Africans to work internationally? The panel agreed that working internationally was important. So what can governments and councils that provide grants for research (in both Africa and internationally) do to encourage this behaviour?
  • However, in encouraging mobility among African scientists, there is a need to recognise the challenges and lived experiences of mobile scientists, promoting the kind of international partnerships that don’t just fund the science but support the scientist. Mobility within Africa is often characterised by chronic anxiety associated with unduly long and complex visa processes, difficulties accessing basic services, and inadequate support to those with families. These are complex issues. But reducing the scientist to just being about their work at the expense of their human and social needs could further perpetuate gender inequity, impact the quality of work, and result in unequal participation in what on the face of it are equal partnerships
  • For research to contribute to sustainable development, it has to be collaborative, effectively engage all stakeholders, and be gender and social inclusion responsive.
  • There was a discussion on how best to improve collaboration among African countries and what factors hinder intra-Africa collaboration.

We pondered the question, “What is research excellence in an African context?”, a question of continental relevance, currently being explored by various Science Granting Councils (SGCs) in Africa, under the SGCs Initiative. Should African scientists be judged differently to their global peers, or is there a better, more relevant way of measuring the success of a researcher in Africa? We did not come up with a satisfactory answer. Perhaps this is a topic for the Science Forum.

In truth, we ended up with more questions than answers — hardly surprising, given the lively debate that was sparked. International engagement on the continent is here to stay, what we can effect is how it is used for the betterment of the people of Africa as a whole. As scientists, policymakers and Africans, that is our challenge.

Professor Robin Grimes, Dr Olajumoke Akiode, Dr Chux Daniels, Dr Tolu Oni, Dr Rudy Onia, Professor John Ouma-Mugabe and Dr Gansen Pillay