This month, scientists in 12 African countries will host 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.
This theme recurred throughout the science panels at the World Economic Forum Africa summit in Durban, South Africa in May.
The numbers cited varied, 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 counter-productive.
Focusing the conversation around the lack of scientists in Africa dismisses the thousands of talented researchers who are working against tall odds to pursue scientific careers on the continent, and imply 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 in retaining Africa's talent
The “too few” framework has consistently spurred investment in programmes aimed at training more MSc and PhD students.
Certainly, expanded and improved education programs are valuable and necessary; but they are not sufficient to retain the pipeline of talent.
In all my conversations with Africa-based researchers, I hear that as soon as these high-calibre 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 programmes are finished.
Why do all these well-trained scientists expatriate? Because the necessary infrastructure to put their training to work is lacking in their home countries.
In 2016, Seeding Labs conducted a written survey of three dozen African scientists from 12 countries.
The survey was completed anonymously, with participants representing a wide 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.
In this same survey, 83% of respondents said that the research grants they apply for specifically prohibit use of funds to purchase equipment or they are insufficient to cover the costs of the equipment they need.
This fits with data collected by Seeding Labs since 2012 from scientists across developing countries, which shows that the average grant size is $25,000 for a multi-year project.
When funding from multi-country research consortia is factored in, this figure only climbs to $63,000.
Scientific equipment and reagents must frequently be imported from international suppliers, almost doubling the costs.
For scientists working in institutions that do not provide a baseline level of equipment infrastructure, grants of this size cannot meet all their needs.
Research is not the only casualty of this under-investment in scientific infrastructure.
In our survey of African researchers, 91% reported that their universities lacked sufficient equipment for the hands-on training of undergraduates.
In one notable example, a university funded by the World Bank African Centers of Excellence reported that while the programme had funded high-end equipment for research, the necessary equipment to train undergraduate students to allow them eventually to staff that research was still lacking.
3 steps to 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 biological and chemical safety standards, and provided with consistent power and water purification systems.
Second, labs must be furnished with sufficient equipment to allow the increasing number of undergraduates to receive hands-on training.
Third, research grants for African scientists must take into account the real costs of doing research. The amount 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.
Novel sources of funding
Coordination between African governments and international funders will be necessary, and it may require diverting some funds away from training programmes 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 a 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 often 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, and 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.