By Maina Waruru
African ministers of education, science and technology faulted scientists for doing research that seemed to be producing knowledge for “the sake of it”, without clear benefits for the larger society and its national challenges.
In the attack on the research system and those participating in it, a panel of ministers at the Seventh African Higher Education Week and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) Triennial Conference 2021 in Cotonou, Benin, some of the speakers suggested researchers are failing the “relevance test” in solving national problems, including in the area of agricultural research.
In fact, the message to the research community was that impact-focused research work would compel governments to avail funding, as it would be helping the state make meaningful development strides.
If the continent’s academia wanted to be guaranteed enhanced state funding, they should change the research system and relook at research objectives to demonstrate and justify to policymakers why more budgetary allocations should be made to support their work.
In what appeared to be a hardline stance in defence against criticism from within the higher education sector about governments’ low expenditure on research and development, and the lack of political will to support research, ministers from Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Ghana, Liberia, Benin, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicated that research in many countries was unlikely to catch the attention of bureaucrats so long as the work was not geared towards addressing pressing national challenges, and when it was not designed to achieve tangible goals.
On average, Africa spends 0,45% of GDP on research and development, which is significantly less than the global average of 1.7% and the African Union target of 1%, according to Dr Catherine Ngila, the acting executive director of the African Academy of Sciences.
She included the statistics in a recent presentation at a joint conference of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), a network of 16 research universities, and The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, which has 21 members.
In response to the “unfortunate” but common position taken by the ministers during the past decade, some academics called for improved communication between the scientific community and policymakers.
According to Professor Christine Dranzoa, the chairperson of the Inter-University Council of East Africa and a board member of RUFORUM, African nations have, over the past decade, evaded owing to their inability to adequately finance research and development, shifting the blame, instead, onto the research community.
In her view, governments should not expect to get the desired research outputs if they do not finance them. “The moment you do not fund the kind of research you want, then you do not expect to get the kind of research results that you want,” said Dranzoa, who is the vice-chancellor of Muni University in Uganda.
“Researchers everywhere respond to calls and, when such calls do not come from governments, researchers can only respond to calls from the organisations and bodies that make them,” she told University World News.
It was, therefore, up to governments to do their part and avail funding so that the kind of knowledge they wanted to be produced was generated.
Dr Monica Musenero, Uganda’s minister for science, technology and innovation, said: “Even if the percentage of investment for research and development in Africa is raised, not much will happen until we change our mindset. Right now, we have the wrong mindset, and that is why we must shift our thinking towards producing innovations for industrialisation of the continent.”
She added that, while there is not so much money available for research on the continent, there was enough cash to produce only appropriate knowledge that enabled the continent to move ahead.
Musenero, during the panel discussion, focused on the tangible outputs of research.
“We need to challenge our academia to change their research models and start doing research that ends in a product out there in the market, or a business start-up. That is what happens in many countries that have relied on knowledge production to achieve development,” she said.
“In Africa, a lot of us research intending to publish in academic journals and to use such publishing to earn ourselves promotions at work,” she lamented.
Universities, said Musenero, had a lot of prototypes produced over the years that had not been developed into products for commercialisation, mainly because the model used by researchers was not meant to produce innovation or product destined for the market.
The time had now come for academicians to move from the era of ‘publish or perish’ to a new one of ‘produce or perish’. Researchers must take the next step towards developing and patenting their innovations to grow them into products.
Africa, she said, was facing the ‘paradox’ of doing research but not showing results of it in the form of tangible products or businesses while, in other cases, people were doing research and producing knowledge only to ‘store’ it later.
“When we will stop using wrong research models, we will start seeing technologies and innovations coming out of our work. We will produce knowledge and be proud of it,” said Musenero.
Capacity to resolve national problems
While the government of Malawi had demonstrated the political commitment to funding science, technology and innovation, it was concerned about the alignment of research with the national priorities of the Southern African country, said Education Minister Agnes Makonda Nyalonje.
The inadequate funding of research in Malawi could be blamed on failure by the research sector to demonstrate the “capacity to solve national problems,” she told the opening session of the conference.
The reason why scholars across Africa were underfunded was that most of the time their work failed the ‘relevance’ test, in solving national problems, she further claimed.
“Our work must, at all times, demonstrate relevance and capacity in solving our challenges, and be focused in priority areas such as agriculture. When this happens, adequate funding will definitely follow automatically,” the minister stated.
That aside, Nyalonje observed that universities needed to be adequately empowered to be able to play their part in national development.
Malawi has drafted a roadmap for development by the year 2063, which, among other matters, contained strategies for investing in science, technology and innovation, and recognised the ‘central’ role of research and development in the attainment of the development vision.
According to Professor Amon Murwira, the minister for higher and tertiary education, science and technology development in Zimbabwe, financing and money for research were not a “big issue where good ideas are available”.
All scientists needed to do was to come up with revolutionary ideas, and funding would be easy to mobilise. He said that Africans needed to rethink the design of their education systems if they were to industrialise, noting that an education system dictates the “pace of industrialisation” in a country.
Zimbabwe was doing exactly that, the minister added, the aim being to reconfigure her system to Education 5.0 to include innovation and industrialisation as key pillars.
His ministry was also developing innovation hubs in all universities to receive and act as incubation centres for ideas and to patent and develop prototypes and commercialise them, in light of increased pressure on universities to produce knowledge to lead in the industrialisation of Africa.
He declared: “It is important to [realise] that it is only through education that we can industrialise – if industries in your country do not come from your education system, then something is wrong with it.”
In a context in which the use of research-generated knowledge in decision-making in Africa was low, the DRC’s Minister of Higher Education, Muhindo Nzangi, said it was critical to have working collaborations between governments and academia guided by a mutually agreed model of interaction.
Dranzoa agreed, saying it was time to end the culture of the ‘blame game’ between the two sides, which she blamed on the lack of effective communication between them. Doors for open communication were slowly opening up, and honest engagement was now possible.
Universities, she noted, had tons of useful data that could benefit the public if shared with policymakers.
It is a view shared by Professor Umezuruike Linus Opara, Stellenbosch University’s South African research chair of post-harvest technology and one of the most-cited African researchers.
The professor said that African researchers worked under some of the most difficult conditions, lacking the basic equipment and facilities necessary to execute their mandate.
“If you want people to do research, first pay, spend the money, then demand accountability,” he advised. “You cannot accuse us of not doing the research you think is relevant, yet you never spent a coin in the first place,” he said in defence of the researchers.
Whoever pays the piper calls the tune, he observed, noting that African academicians produced volumes of research outputs each year for the private sector, wondering if companies would pay for it if it was neither relevant nor appropriate.
Overall, he noted, governments had no viable excuse to continue marginalising the research and development sector, yet they wanted development for their people.