Africa's Science Decline: The Challenge of Building Scientific Institutions

By Mouton, Johann | Harvard International Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Africa's Science Decline: The Challenge of Building Scientific Institutions


Mouton, Johann, Harvard International Review


The central role of the modern research university within the knowledge economy is now generally appreciated. although it is recognized that knowledge is also produced outside the university, there is--if anything--greater appreciation today of the critical role and function of the university in the production of scientific knowledge. There is every indication that the central role of the university in modern day knowledge economies will only increase as the economy and society become even more reliant on knowledge.

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However, it is not self-evident that this trend necessarily applies to universities in many poor developing countries and specifically not to many sub-saharan African countries. In many of these countries the university is often the main, if not only, site of scientific knowledge production. Unlike many of the developed countries in the North, these countries do not have an abundance of private research laboratories, well-resourced by government institutes. Such countries rely heavily on these universities for producing basic research as well as for being a reservoir of applied and problem-solving research and the production of highly skilled knowledge workers. Unfortunately, over the last thirty years, the research capacity at many of these institutions has been gradually eroded to the extent that one could not refer to these universities as vibrant and sustainable scientific institutions. In fact, one could claim that science in many African countries has, in the recent past, been systematically de-institutionalized. This currently has and will continue to have negative effects on scientific innovation in Africa.

The Decline of University Research in Africa

Various international forces associated with the globalization and internationalization of trade in the 1980s and 1990s have had a devastating effect on the economies of many African countries. The decline in export volumes and the relative decline in the price of primary products in world trade in the 1980s and 1990s, combined with the mishandling of exchange rates and of external reserves, and the huge external debt overhand together created major resource gaps for the countries of Africa. This put serious pressure on their import capacity and the availability of resources for essential economic and social investment. The result was an increased dependence of the typical sub-Saharan African country on aid from developed countries.

At the same time, international agencies, most notably the World Bank, decided to privilege expenditure on basic education at the expense of support for higher education. This policy position was based on two premises. The first was the belief that the returns on investments in primary and secondary education are higher than those to higher education. The second reason relates to concerns that equity and access to basic education would naturally lead to an emphasis on primary education, which increased exponentially in many universities thrown into financial crisis, laboratories and libraries not receiving any maintenance, overcrowded lecture rooms, and flight of the top academics from these institutions.

Research and scholarship would be one of the main losers during these years. Africa's share of world science, as measured in papers published in the citation indexes of the Institute for Scientific Information, have been declining steadily over the past decade. Bibliometric studies done at the University of Leiden's Centre for Science and Technology Studies show that sub-Saharan Africa's share of world scientific papers declined from one percent in 1987 to 0.7 percent in 1996. These diminishing shares of African science overall do not reflect a decrease in an absolute sense, but rather an increase in publication output less than the worldwide growth rate. Africa has lost 11 percent of its share in global science since its peak in 1987; sub-Saharan science has lost almost a third (31 percent). …

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Africa's Science Decline: The Challenge of Building Scientific Institutions
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