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david niyukuriDebate: Basic vs. Applied Research and the “Brain-Drain” Phenomenon – a response to Dr. Ghada Bassioni

Recently an article titled “Basic vs Applied research and brain drain phenomenon” appeared on the NEF platform [1]. The author Dr. Ghada Bassioni, NEF Fellow of Egypt, discussed the Basic vs Applied research issue in Africa, and highlighted the neglect of basic research due to the lack of scientists, funds and willingness of policy makers and the “brain-drain” phenomenon.

Although I agree with some of her assessments, I believe the emphasis on applied research is necessary. Speaking from a Burundian perspective, using science to assist in development should take priority over basic research. A population with basic needs is a healthy and wealthy population. Basic needs like food, water, clothing, shelter, sanitation, education, and healthcare are compulsory for the well-being of populations and its development. Only science can help to provide all those needs.

We are witness to myriad challenges in Africa in terms of development and well-being of populations. Africa is a continent with some negative indicators of development [2,3]. That is why the subsistence needs of populations of Africa take precedence in politics. Therefore, the kinds of research oriented to satisfy those subsistence needs are well-funded. Of course some countries established funds bodies in charge of funding research, as is the case with the  National Research Foundation (NRF) of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in South Africa [4,5], Science and Technology Development Fund (STDF) in Egypt [6].

Though this must be the primary tasks for all Africa countries, there are countries where it is not possible to set up consistence research bodies to highly contribute to the enhancement of the well-being of citizens. This is for example the case of Burundi where as shown in the government budget breakdown, the Scientific Research and Technology Directorate received a paltry sum allocated to encourage research and innovation in 2013 [6, 7].  Arguably, I can say that there is no government body dedicated to funding applied research in order to tackle the challenges of populations, although there are many efforts to enhance higher education and make it industry-oriented. Sometimes it is not only the lack of money; there is a problem of human resources in the different areas of research and then there are little to no initiatives in industry-oriented research. The available academics are mostly busy with lectures as the first task. Thus, in my opinion, external assistance with African countries or Western is crucial for countries with low income which do not have sufficient resources to implement and invest adequately in systems of higher education and research [8].

In my opinion, the main cause of those issues cited above is the “brain-drain” phenomenon. One-third of all African scientists live and work in developed countries [8,9]. Most Burundian scientists are abroad and do not want to come back. When asked why, they argue for security issues and wages. Indeed, the high cost of living is challenging  in many ways. The income in many developing countries is not sufficient enough for people accustomed to western jobs. To return to one’s country out of altruism would be a huge sacrifice. But we have to be aware that this deadlock situation due to brain-drain is the root of many problems in Africa.

Blue sky curiosity is for someone for whom the primary needs are satisfied. Even intellectuals who are struggling to make ends meet will find it difficult to understand curious physical phenomenon when faced with the bread and butter issues of  everyday life. But there are some African countries with good records in Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and those countries are now opening doors for basic research.

Thus, much effort still needs to be deployed and collaboration is required to enable countries like Burundi to take part in the African championship for the development in STEM.

Since the overarching goal is to attempt to change the trend of African development, we have to analyze the issues and their causes. The issue of the brain-drain phenomenon is complex and difficult to deal with since African scientists work abroad are incentivized to do so. In my opinion, the main causes of the brain-drain problem in Africa are essentially political indifference, widespread conflict, lack of opportunities and the lack of infrastructure.

Those in the Diaspora should consider coming back to Africa to assist in industry-driven research for the primary needs of the population and securing jobs to the youth of Africa. This will be more valuable and effective in alleviating the everyday challenges of the general population.

To take this step forward, there must be a change in politics. Leaders must understand that science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the most powerful tools to enable the development of their nations. Also scientists must feel that it is their calling to the situation in their respective countries. Scientists must be a little politically literate and politicians must be scientifically literate. Thus, this will facilitate them to work together to better tackle problems in their countries, and eventually, on the continent.

David Niyukuri, NEF Ambassador for Burundi, is a teacher assistant at the University of Burundi in the Department of Mathematics from 2013 after graduating from the same University. He is an alumnus of the African Institute for Mathematical Science (Cape Town, South Africa) in the 2014-2015 cohort. His areas of interest include epidemiology modelling and optimization. He aspires to work in academia and also in industry. He is more focused in using mathematics to handle problems of real life like modeling diseases and efficient energy management. His ambition in industry is to apply the scientific knowledge to create and help companies. His goal is to participate in capacity building for the best future for Africa and his country Burundi.

References:

[1] http://nef.org/basic-vs-applied-research-and-the-brain-drain-phenomenon/, Accessed 2016 Jan 22.

[2] World Bank. 2013. Africa Development Indicators 2012/13. Washington, DC: World

Bank. doi: 10.1596/978-0-8213-9616-2.

[3] World Bank. 2015. World Development Indicators 2015. Washington, DC: World Bank.

doi:10.1596/978–1-4648–0440–3.

[4] NRF Homepage: http://nrf.ac.za/, Accessed 2016 Jan 22.

[5] DST Homepage: http://www.dst.gov.za/, Accessed 2016 Jan 22.

[6] STDF Homepage: www.stdf.org.eg, Accessed 2016 Jan 22. *To be precise, the percentage was 0,000015133%

[7] http://finances.gov.bi/images/download/budgets/budget_2013/loi_budgetaire_2013.PDF (page 94). The document is titled “Budget général des recettes et des dépenses ordinaires et en capital de la République du Burundi 2013.”

[8] Joint Statement by the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC), Brain drain in Africa, NASAC submit the following statement to the heads of state and government attending the G8 + 5 Summit in Italy, in July 2009.

[9] Nadja Johnson, Analysis and Assessment of the “Brain Drain”  Phenomenon and its Effects on Caribbean Countries, FLORIDA ATLANTIC COMPARATIVE STUDIES JOURNAL Vol. 11, 2008-2009