No, Africa is not lacking talented scientists. We’re just not investing in them

Africa has a wide range of talented scientists
Africa has a wide range of talented scientists
Image: Reuters/Thierry Gouegnon
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This month, scientists in 12 African countries hosted events for Africa Science Week, highlighting the talent across the continent. In a time when the research powerhouse of the United States is questioning its investments in science, it is a visionary move for African scientists to step forward.

It is crucial therefore, that we fend off the negative theme that threatens this positive conversation: the pervasive lament that Africa produces too few scientists.

The numbers cited to back up this theme vary, from 92 scientists per million inhabitants on the continent up to 198 scientists per million. At least one of those figures is based on a definition of full-time researchers that excludes most academic faculty members and even graduate students who spend any significant time teaching.

While these numbers are meant to spark further investment in African science the manner in which they are invoked may in fact be backfiring.  Focusing the conversation around the lack of scientists in Africa dismisses the thousands of talented researchers who are pursuing scientific careers on the continent, implying a void rather than a talent pool ready for investment. Rather than focusing on the absence of scientists, we should be highlighting those who are present as an asset and encouraging investment in them as such. By doing so, we will much more effectively increase the numbers of African scientists and the quality and impact of science generated in Africa.

Missing ingredients

Why does this theme of “too few” scientists persist? Perhaps because it is a useful argument for investing further in training programs for M.Sc and PhD students. This is not all bad. Expanding and improving higher education education is valuable and necessary. But merely turning out graduates is not sufficient. In all my conversations with Africa-based researchers, I hear that as soon as these high-caliber post-grads are trained, the majority leave the continent. Indeed, many of the training opportunities include time spent in the US or Europe working in well-resourced labs, which increases the likelihood of trainees remaining abroad when their degree programs are finished.

Many of these well-trained scientists expatriate because their home countries lack key aspects of the necessary infrastructure to put their training to work.

In 2016, my company Seeding Labs conducted a written survey of three dozen African scientists from 12 countries. The surveys were completed anonymously with participants representing the range of fields including biology, chemistry, computer science and engineering. All participants were receiving or had just completed post-graduate training outside their home countries and returned to their home institutions. However, 76% reported that their home institutions lacked sufficient laboratory equipment to conduct their current research projects, and 93% reported that they lacked the equipment to pursue future research directions.

Existing Equipment is Sufficient to Meet Needs For:

Source: Seeding Labs survey data, 2016

Unlike universities in wealthy countries where new researchers generally receive startup grants and can find equipment to share among their colleagues, scientists working in African institutions cannot always count on a similar baseline level of infrastructure, and must scramble to meet their needs through individual research grants.

However, in our recent survey, 83% of respondents said the research grants they apply to specifically prohibit use of funds to purchase equipment or are insufficient to cover the costs of the equipment they need. Data we have collected since 2012 from scientists across developing countries (including African scientists) shows that the average grant size is $25,000 for a multi-year project. This size grant typically comes from a national science agency or smaller international foundations.

Labs benefit slightly more from participating in multi-country research consortia supported by large global institutional donors; in these cases the average grant size climbs to $63,000. Contrast this to higher income countries where the average budget for laboratory products alone can range from $100,000-$350.000 per year, and factor in that scientific equipment and reagents must frequently be imported from international suppliers, almost doubling the costs. African scientists cannot cobble together the necessary funding to meet all their needs.

Building scientific infrastructure

The solution lies in broadening the definition of scientific infrastructure and properly investing in it. First, outdated lab buildings must be refurbished to current standards of biological and chemical safety procedures and provided with consistent power and water purification systems.

Second, labs must be furnished with sufficient equipment for the increasing numbers of undergraduates to obtain hands-on training.

Third, research grants for African scientists must take into account the real costs of doing research. The amounts of funding available per grant must be increased, and the restrictions on use for equipment purchases must be removed.

These are not insignificant investments, to be sure. Coordination between African governments and international funders will be necessary, and it may require diverting some funds away from training programs at first. This is also, however, an opportunity to tap into novel sources of funding for research by redefining scientific facilities and equipment as infrastructure, on par with roads, dams and power plants. China’s inclusion of science labs in its Belt and Road Initiative highlights that country’s understanding that all of these are necessary ingredients for advancement in today’s knowledge-based economy.

Africa’s current generation of scientists, provided at last with the resources they need, will be able to stay in their home countries, generate new knowledge, publish and patent, secure future funding and make necessary advances in areas such as health and agriculture. Their accomplishments will attract more and better students, filling that pipeline lamented as too small. The same infrastructure will allow those students to pursue training and build their careers in Africa as well.

By building the infrastructure today, investing in the scientists who are on the ground, we can put to rest once and for all the problem of “too few” scientists in Africa.

This is an update of an earlier article on