Engaging the African Diaspora in the US to Strengthen African R&D Ecosystem

Published on 24th October 2017

I have joined with other African leaders from the public and private sectors to dedicate considerable attention to the conceptualization and launch of CARI, the Coalition for African Research and Innovation. I am pleased to serve as Chair of CARI’s Leadership Committee. The notion of CARI is not just to attract resources that drive scientific research to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Its ambitions are yet greater.

Finding preventions and even cures to disease, and developing solutions to conditions that threaten our wellbeing and food, energy and water security, are necessary but not sufficient. CARI aims to build a sustainable infrastructure for African research in Africa and in service to African health and economic needs. This requires building on an African point of view to establish priorities, and to create both the physical and the human infrastructure for a world-class, vibrant research and innovation hub on the Continent.

The African diaspora is an important piece of this puzzle. It is my view that we must leverage African STI talent, and world talent applicable to African needs, wherever it resides. This is especially and increasingly the case in scientific research, where global exchange and collaboration is very much the norm.

I prefer to regard what many consider the “problem” of brain drain, as the “opportunity” of brain circulation. Our focus must be on investing in world-class education and training; the creation of the physical infrastructure like buildings that are not retrofitted from classrooms, but designed and built from the ground up for technological needs, and the acquisition of modern equipment that meets the highest standards of quality international research. Moreover, we must create the economic, administrative and governance conditions to nurture scientific research in Africa. We are never going to stop a brain drain by discouraging people from exploring the rest of the globe, nor should we.

I received my own advanced education outside of Africa, and I believe that it has served me well. But it should not have been my only option for attaining a world-class education. We should be thinking about and investing in making Africa herself an incubator for science that is so robust that it will exert a natural attraction to the world’s best talent. This includes African students who will choose to stay, and those who will choose to return, as well as second-generation sons and daughters of Africa and other people born outside of our homeland who want to be a part of the exciting future of science. Not out of an instinct for charity or adventure or seeking roots, but because of what CARI envisions will be the compelling opportunity to be a scientist in Africa.

The United States has traditionally been a magnet for post-doctoral training in particular. I am a believer in the collaborative interdependence of research and innovation, and that “all boats rise with the tide.”  Therefore, I don’t regard other countries as “competitors” in this realm: I root for successful quality research wherever in the world it resides.

Having said that, current conditions in the U.S. may present a timely opportunity to those of us in the rest of the world who naturally hope to attract and retain talented scientists with the greatest potential to contribute to our research priorities.

The post-doc “crisis” in the U.S. has been well-documented over the last generation. In a nutshell: the number of post-doctoral fellowships has increased significantly – 150% between 2000 and 2012 – while research funding has plateaued and started to drop: by 4.3% between 1993 and 2012. The result is that post-docs in the U.S. are backed up in the pipeline, spending ever-increasing time as dependents on “soft money”, and competing fiercely for stable employment in their chosen fields. Germany and the UK are experiencing similar trends. China has taken up some of the slack by significantly increasing the number of post-doc positions available, but the country’s attractiveness is limited by its poor salaries and widespread use of Mandarin.

An economist might look at these trends and see an opportunity for Africa. There is an over-supply of highly-trained scientists in the Global North and in China who are not finding satisfying and stable outlets for their talents. We in Africa are in parallel experiencing a demand for people with strong training in STI to help us fulfil our vision of a future based on research and innovation.

If we create appropriate employment positions with commensurate compensation and good career prospects in academia and the private sector, as well as encourage friendly immigration policies to facilitate people coming to our Continent, we can absorb some of the intellectual oversupply from the rest of the world. In this scenario, we will populate our labs with global talent, which, when combined with home-grown scientists and the diaspora increasingly looking over their shoulders for attractive opportunities to come home, we will have on our hands a rich incubator of diverse scholarship in Africa.

CARI is positioned to bring this sort of long term thinking to bear to help us stimulate “brain circulation” to reach our full potential. Of course it won’t be easy, straightforward or painless. The effort to build world-class research in Africa will depend on the contributions, collaboration and coordination of many actors. Our success depends on the performance of a highly-choreographed dance among governments, universities, research institutes, pharmaceutical companies, advocates, capital investors, foundations and other stakeholders, many of whom have rarely danced together before.

Governments must look beyond political time horizons, because creating a robust research infrastructure will take not years, but decades. The non-profit sector, including foundations, must shift away from a “one-and-done” mindset, to look for opportunities to invest in sustainable programs, much of which are intangible, like education and training. The private sector must consider not just their immediate return on investment, but on helping to build a trained workforce and investing in the full product pipeline from basic research through manufacture and distribution at home in Africa.

The persistent Colonial mindset of looking to our Continent to exploit its natural resources for export and to consider its people a source of energy, just at the unskilled end of the workforce spectrum is no longer acceptable. We are at an exciting time on the Continent because Africa has woken up to these dynamics, as well as to our favourable demographics of increasing youth, decreasing rates of communicable disease and greater prosperity.

Conditions are aligning to allow Africa to seize control of her own destiny, invest and attract investment in her own people and establish priorities in her own interest. The ground is fertile to grow a truly thriving world of science on our Continent. This is the ambition of CARI. I invite everyone who shares our vision of a thriving world of research and innovation in Africa to join our cause.

By Her Excellency Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, GCSK., CSK., PhD., DSc

President of the Republic of Mauritius. 

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