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Science in Africa - How Can We Contribute?

25.07.2011, Age: 3713 days

In the 30 June Nature Special "Science in Africa", the Editor asks: "What can individual researchers do for colleagues in Africa?"

The Editorial to this Special Issue of Nature (474, 30 June 2011) sums up various reasons for being pessimistic about the chances for science in sub-Saharan Africa: lack of funding, poor facilities, corruption, political instability etc. The conditions for successful collaboration between scientists from the developed countries with their African colleagues appear grim.

Yet, as this Special Issue shows, individual scientists and their institutions from the wealthier countries can really make a difference. There are many examples where scientists from the developed countries, as well as African scientists returning to their homelands, started successful research centres. TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world in Trieste, Italy, gives out more than 300 fellowships each year to young scientists from the developing world.

The current executive director of TWA is Romain Murenzi, originally from Rwanda. As a 23-old he was initially rejected for a PhD grant in Belgium on the grounds that promising African scientists should stay in Africa to avoid brain drain. He was selected the next year, however, and pursued a scientific career in Europe and the US before becoming minister of education, science and technology of Rwanda.

While brain drain is indeed a serious problem for developing countries, Murenzi prefers a different approach: "Brain drain is now seen as best addressed without compromising an individual's desire to reach his or her full potential."

He ends his contribution:

"With most of the world's young people coming from the developing world, the future of not just poor countries but the entire world will depend on support for its young scientists. It is vital that university graduates there are given the same opportunity that I was."

Supporting science in developing countries does not always have to be expensive or massive, says the Editorial:

"Scientists in wealthy nations can also make an impact with smaller contributions. For as little as US$4,000, a university department in Europe or the United States could host an academic from Africa for two weeks. The scientist could attend a major conference, spend time in labs and build collaborations. Bringing the same researcher back every year for five or ten years would lead to a lasting alliance, without contributing to the brain drain that siphons so many African scientists away from the continent. For $10,000, a department or university could pay a scientist's tuition fees at AIMS in South Africa or at its new institute in Senegal for one year."

Several online comments stress the need for sustainable collaborations between the developed and developing countries, not just financial aid:

"As an African, this is all that I would want. Africa offers researchers from all over the world unique insights into the natural, social, political and economic sciences. All I ask for is that when researchers from developed countries study these systems that the draw in local collaborators to (a) get local insights into the topic in question and (b) aid the project in gaining critical mass (i.e. local interest) needed to ensure sustainable research."

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