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new era imageAuthor: Dr. Nkem Khumbah

 

Over the last two decades, a global wave of market liberalization has produced an interconnected world economy that has brought unprecedented levels of activity and growth. This has led to structural changes that have encouraged many governments to view Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) competencies as integral to economic growth, development, and security. In their efforts to build the foundations for more knowledge-based economies, they have urged STEM research, and its commercial and intellectual applications to play an increasingly significant role. To this end, the world is witnessing a shift of development priorities towards a greater emphasis and investments in higher education systems as the developers of STEM competencies, STEM infrastructures, and indigenous and industrial research and development capabilities.

Indeed, while Africa at independence some 50 years ago was more preoccupied with developing manpower for its mostly vacant state apparatuses, and asserting its human-hood that had been undermined over the prior four centuries of external domination, Africa today is broadly emphasizing and demanding scientific competencies and productivity. STEM competencies are viewed as crucial prerequisites for any nation to successfully integrate into the world economy, and firmly stay on a path to fulfilling its vision of a more prosperous future. . This growing recognition is resulting in emerging shifts in African regional development priorities towards development of regional technical and scientific competencies.

Current Situation

The broad African political leadership has variously situated scientific capacity as a premier continental development priority, and as prerequisite for developing the necessary continental scientific manpower for other important priorities like economic transformation, trade, governance, and security –including health, energy, food and environmental security. While science and technology are not a panacea for all the challenges of development and by themselves will not solve Africa’s persistent legacies of underdevelopment, without them those legacies cannot be overcome. African governments are increasingly aware, and even seem committed, for their countries to become producers of scientific knowledge, not just consumers of technological products, by increasing investments in higher education in general and in the STI fields in particular. In 2006, African Heads of States endorsed a target for each nation to spend 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on Research and Development (R&D).

This shift is manifested in the establishment of specialized ministries responsible for national Science, Technology and Innovation policies, which numbered at over 40 in 2010. Recognizing the insufficiency of focusing on baccalaureate and advanced degree holders in STI fields, given employment pressures from a burgeoning youth population, many countries have recently established ministries of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). Almost every African country with a national strategic development plan or “vision” to “emerge” has Science, Technology and Innovation as a high priority.

Current Policies on STI

Many national, regional, and continental policy documents guide African STI development, including:

  • Many African Governments’ “vision” plans to become “emerging” nations in the medium term (20 to 30 years);
  • NEPAD’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action;
  • The African Development Bank’s support to Higher Education, Science and Technology – HEST project;
  • The recently formed Partnership in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET)
  • The African Union’s recent Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024);

Most STEM and Mathematics-specific Initiatives –in Africa as elsewhere– are regional and collaborative in conception and scope, due to the fact that they typically face common material and human resource challenges; the success of development agendas and initiatives are interdependent; and they ultimately serve the same demographic. We thus suggest that despite its regional and material variations, it may serve better to speak of the scientific communities in Africa in complementary terms, as a whole fabric. The fabric metaphor seems to better capture the interconnectivity of the various strands of scientific experience in Africa, as well as the commonality of their operational challenges. All of the strands weave together, each intertwining the other, and collectively they form an integrated whole that if viewed collectively, is much stronger than the parts separately.

If Africa is to realize its aspirations of developing advanced STI competencies, and provide talented young people of the continent with the advanced tools and skills they will need to address current and future challenges, its governments have to have deeper, more engaged commitment to the significant role science, research, education and academia can play in shaping its future. They must allocate their own resources, to invest fully and deeply, in their own academic and scientific environments. Countries like South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, Senegal have been making progress in this regards, and implications are obvious in the relative strengths of the non-extractive sectors of their economies.

Some Challenges

The responsibility and confidence for developing African STI competencies need to be placed on African scientists and academics. The ideas, processes, technologies, and institutions that make up this development must be led, owned and specific to an empowered African scientific establishment, and the African policy and international donor establishments must embrace them. Else, many well intentioned major international development initiatives with Africa end up as patchy and shallow engagements, characterized by workshops and consultancies. They too often end up as short-term transactional engagements as opposed to long-term transformative endeavors.

There is a need for African disciplinary and trans-disciplinary science communities to organize themselves, collaborate to strengthen and develop cohesive identities, as well as to solidify their role as linchpins of any (regional or continental) efforts at advancing STEM in Africa. The Next Einstein Forum can fill this need and marshal forth effective STI policies and thought leadership with its cadre of practitioners and continental experts. These practitioners and experts will successfully articulate, advocate for, and implement transformative STEM imperatives for African Higher Education.

If science in Africa is not funded at a level that is higher than the global average, African nations risk doing only “talking” while other nations do both “talking ad walking”, resulting in a widening science and innovation gap, and deeper dependency on the outside world for solutions to its most basic challenges that require scientific competency. Already, many Africa science policy strategy documents, at national and regional levels, variously call for enhancing scientific capacity and productivity. The STISA-2024’s call for an African Science and Technology Innovation Fund is a case in point.

With the recognition that Africa’s ongoing transformation, founded on strong economic growth, political will and demographics, is ushering a new global economic and scientific landscape on the continent, with Science, Technology and Innovation driving the process, the NEF aims to accelerate this transformation from promise to progress, by fostering development of a cohesive and vibrant African scientific community as a full member of the global scientific community, to contribute to sustainable human development in Africa and other parts of the world. Given the continental scale of change, there is a pressing need for a global forum in Africa where science can meet society, policy- makers and the public.

Some overarching challenges facing Africa’s efforts at transitioning from a commodities-based to knowledge-based economy is science education, and the employability of the STEM workforce and youths. Neither be fully defined nor addressed by the public policy sector, university systems or business sectors alone in isolation.

Addressing the Challenges

These challenges are best addressed by creation of an appropriate and highly effective interface between government bodies that make policies, the university community that trains the workforce, and the business community that absorbs university graduates and translates research products into improvements of the economic and social sectors. Such an interface is required to bring these three communities to co-explore and co-define critical issues related to the continental and global STI agenda. Collaborative efforts must be made to frame the next critical question stemming from current debate and analysis and to incubate activities of on-going mutual value.

In the face of the multitude of challenges facing STEM in Africa, it is obvious that no single policy or agency can respond singly or effectively in a substantively transformative way; a multi-faceted approach is needed. Perhaps most important, research and workforce preparation policies and programs need to be carefully coordinated, and the African STEM research and education community called upon and positioned to own and lead the necessary task of transforming their enterprise, in a way that dramatically increases opportunities for young people to take up science professions.