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What we might learn from Africa

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle

Imagine giving birth in dicey circumstance, protecting your child against indiscriminate risk, and then seeing her excel in school. But before she can build ties to family, establish roots in her community, and achieve her full potential, forces outside your control cause her to leave home and go away forever. This describes the wrenching experience of science leaders in Africa trying to strengthen the innovation eco-system on a continent that seems, at times, to be hemorrhaging its best and brightest.

Almost all countries including Canada struggle to retain top talent (our software engineers sit on a slippery waterslide flowing toward brand names in Silicon Valley) and fight a brain drain. But numbers show that Africa suffers more than any other region and suggest that things could get worse thanks to persistent economic and health challenges, conflicts and catastrophes that have fostered many forms of migration. Smaller African countries can see over 80 per cent of their highly educated people emigrating, and all of Africa struggles to retain health professionals. Half of the doctors trained there leave for greener pastures abroad. (These issues are well known – see Canada’s IDRC).

Fortunately Africa has a powerful asset, a cadre of dedicated, visionary, and earnest people working on the issue at many science organizations throughout the continent. As documented in a new report from the International Science Council (ISC) and the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS), they are ready to stare down the challenge by sharing ideas, collaborating, and innovating with a determined kind of hopefulness.

The report, "Shaping the future of researchers in developing countries", summarizes the discussions at a two-day workshop staged by the NAS and my colleagues on the International Council for Science (ICSU) Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the conduct of Science (CFRS) last year in Abuja. NAS President Mosto Onuoha offered to co-host the workshop in 2017 and my CFRS friend Guéladio Cissé drove the agenda and arrangements. But people from many organizations and nations (France, Norway, New Zealand, Switzerland, South Africa, Ghana, Cameroun, Nigeria, Kenya, Australia, Egypt, Senegal, and Burkina Faso) participated, coming together to confront the elephantine powers that push and pull people away from Africa.

As you might guess, the lack of money ran through many presentations and conversations. This deficiency manifests in poor wages for scientists and educators, the absence of basic research equipment and tools, and limited career opportunities. The African ambition to see investments in science, technology and innovation raised to 1 per cent of national expenditures emphasizes the challenge as it applies to per capita GDPs sometimes measured in the hundreds of dollars.

I was heartened to note references to UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers as a touchstone in efforts to increase funding and convince governments of the links between science and national development. But the elements of the report that impressed me most were those that looked for zero or low-cost initiatives within the control of the African science community itself.

The Abuja workshop participants noted, for example, that a fairer and judicious allocation of existing resources could create a more attractive, stay-in-Africa environment for women researchers, youth, and others looking to build careers close to their homes. They also cited everyone’s responsibility to contribute to a scientific context founded upon integrity, ethics, and transparency.

But the category of ideas that intrigued me most were those that sought to transform the brain drain into brain gain by purposefully developing diaspora networks. There are unexploited opportunities to engage overseas Africans to maintain professional ties with their home countries, mentor young Africans, and build international collaborations to the benefit of the continent.

Professor Cissé, who became a research director at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel, and others attending last year’s workshop in Nigeria would be good role models in this enterprise and the seeds of such a tree of hope.

Their optimism and ideas can also inspire those considering brain-drain challenges anywhere.

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