Leapfrogging Research and Innovation in Africa: The Role of Academic (Social) Entrepreneurship
It is a privilege to address you at the ENGAGE 2020 conference. Today, I want to discuss African excellence in sciences, challenges that the continent faces in research and innovation, and ways in which the African School of Economics, which I founded, strives to address these issues.
The African continent holds tremendous talent and has shown that it can lead the way in science, technology and innovation. It has, for instance, been the breeding ground for revolutionary technological advances such as mobile money (e.g., M-PESA), while also producing inspiring, high caliber scientists who are a testament to the potential that Africans hold. To name a few, Adji Bousso Dieng, a Senegalese AI researcher, has made significant contributions to the field of generative modeling and will be Princeton's School of Engineering's first Black female faculty. Bertin Nahum, a Beninese surgical robotics innovator has been considered as one of the top 5 innovators of the last 20 years These are select examples from a large pool of talent that too often goes unrecognized.
Indeed, at the aggregate level, the continent is lagging in science and innovation. In 2007, one could count only 164 researchers per million Africans against a world average of 1,081. Tallies have shown that Africa produces no more than 1.1% of the world’s scientific knowledge. This does not mean that research pertaining to African issues is not being produced. It is, just not (by in large) by Africans. Instead of undertaking Ebola research in Sierra Leone, basic science on HIV in South Africa, and malaria genetics in Mali, this research is being outsourced to California, Oxford or Zurich. Less than 12 of the 144 papers published about Africa in the top 5 economics journals during the past 20 years have African co-authors (Panin 2020; Porteous 2020).
One can’t help but wonder what is going wrong, and there are in fact many contributing factors. First, African researchers are very often subjected to an extractive research culture, whereby partnerships with foreign researchers adopt an unequal dynamic focused on data collection rather than capacity building. There are additionally very few research universities in most African countries, since government funding is limited. Private universities, on the other hand, tend to focus on vocational training, rather than research. This leaves the continent with a weak ability to invest in capacity building in research and innovation. All of these challenges exist despite the strong case that can be made for local knowledge production. Indeed, local knowledge production is more cost effective, ensures that the right priorities are being addressed, increases inclusion and allows for improved knowledge production that is informed by a deep understanding of local contexts. Stakeholders like the African Union have in fact recognized the importance of research and innovation on the African continent and have been promoting capacity building in these areas through the establishment of the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024.
An important component of the solution is to grow the number of cutting-edge research universities on the African continent. This will provide young Africans with access to research opportunities and enhance technical training on the continent. Since national development plans often prioritize issues other than higher education, research and innovation, academic social entrepreneurship is crucial to the establishment of these research universities. It is essential for scientists to lead the way in setting up research universities and laboratories and in doing so, creativity and entrepreneurship are primordial. Namely, there is a need to promote multidisciplinarity, adopt a Pan-African approach, leverage research grants funding and establish partnerships with international research institutions that African students can benefit from.
This is the approach that the African School of Economics adopted. To date, the university has welcome students from 17 countries, has placed 20 of its graduates in top PhD programs including Princeton, NYU, Penn State, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Emory University, and Notre Dame. It has also established 5 research institutes with more than 45 research projects spanning 9 countries. The African School of Economics’ latest achievement is the Pan-African Scientific Research Council (PASRC), an initiative that aims to provide a platform for African talent to be honored, supported and amplified, and create linkages between researchers in the diaspora and those on the continent.
In the next, 6-7 years, the African School of Economics is hoping to place 50 black Africans with potential for sustained academic production in top PhD programs every year, with 10 of them joining programs on the African continent. We are also hoping to continue growing the PASRC as a major Pan-African incubator for African talent in science and technology. Africa has an immense pool of talent that should be leveraged through social entrepreneurship, to create world class research universities and labs. The PASRC will serve as a platform to achieve this goal, through interdisciplinary collaboration and public engagement. Together, let us bring Africa to the forefront of science and innovation.
Prof. Leonard Wantchekon
Founder of African School of Economics
Founder of the Pan-African Scientific Research Council
Professor of Politics at the Princeton University School of Public and International Affairs
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