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On the rise-Scientific research in Africa is gathering momentum

August 11, 2014

20140809_MAP004_0AFRICA has a poor reputation for scientific innovation. But when South Africa jointly won a bid in 2012 to host the world’s largest science project, for a radio telescope called the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), it hoped to foster a new image. “It’s changing the way the world sees us, as somewhere for cutting-edge science and technology,” says SKA’s Bernie Fanaroff. “And also the way we see ourselves.” SKA’s satellite dishes will eventually span Australia, New Zealand and eight sub-Saharan countries. When complete, hopefully in around a decade, they could be the world’s single largest source of data. That may in turn help host countries develop data-processing skills that will benefit them in other areas of “big data”. The project is at the forefront of a blossoming of scientific research in Africa. Health care and agriculture are the priorities. Across the continent, programmes are under way to develop seed varieties to withstand Africa’s changing weather. In Uganda, where bananas are a staple, scientists are using genetic modification to boost disease resistance. New strains of cotton and rice are being developed, too. In health care, more clinical trials are taking place in Africa than before. The vast majority of local laboratories still fail to meet the World Health Organisation’s basic standards, but there are a growing number of exceptions. African biomedical researchers are looking into diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and tropical diseases often ignored by big pharmaceutical companies. “The neglected tropical infections are Africa-specific,” says Tim Meade, an American paediatrician based in Zambia. “If we don’t find answers here they will remain a mystery.” The number of scientific papers produced by Africans has tripled in the past decade, to over 55,400 in 2013, according to Reed Elsevier, an Anglo-Dutch information company. That still only accounts for 2.4% of the world’s total, but it is quite a jump. The quality is rising, too. More funding and better internet connectivity are helping. Access to scientific literature offered by public-private partnerships like Research4Life, a UN-led initiative that makes research papers freely available in poor countries, has helped, too. A new generation of African politicians with technical training is promoting innovation. International businesses are starting research programmes in Africa. Last year IBM launched a laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The firm wants to use its artificial-intelligence technology to support health workers in areas where doctors are scarce. Philips, a Dutch electronics firm, is opening an innovation hub in Kenya to focus on health care and lighting. Most African countries are starting from a low base and still spend only a tiny proportion of GDP on scientific research. But programmes like IBM’s and SKA’s are luring talented African scientists back from across the world, reversing decades of brain drain. The Next Einstein Initiative at the South Africa-based African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is now turning out hundreds of top-notch scientists every year at five postgraduate centres across the continent, each specialising in an area related to African development. By 2023 it aims to have 15 centres. Says the institute’s Thierry Zomahoun, “We want to create a generation of scientists who will lead Africa’s transformation.” *Source economist]]>


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