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Nature volume 515, pages S92S93 (13 November 2014) | Download Citation

Efforts to boost domestic science spending have yet to reach their goal, but are having an effect in Africa. Researchers, however, still rely heavily on funds and collaborators from richer nations.

Africa is paying attention to science. In 2005 and again in 2014, the continent's leaders met to agree on strategies for investment in science and technology to solve Africa's myriad problems, including ill-health, poverty and political instability. Strategies included funding regional networks in key research areas, such as biosciences and water, and a continental target of countries spending 1% of their GDP on science and technology.

“Many African scientists still depend partly or wholly on foreign funding.”

But despite these agreements, no African countries have reached the 1% goal. Today, support for science in Africa varies widely, with countries contributing between less than 0.1% (for Angola) and 0.98% (for Kenya), compared to a world average of 1.7%. Many African scientists still depend partly or wholly on foreign funding to keep their labs running. As a result, international funders have a strong influence on Africa's research agenda, for example prioritizing advanced vaccine development over low-tech, local health interventions.

The continent's top performing countries in science have long been South Africa followed by Egypt, with Kenya coming in third place. This pattern is reaffirmed by the Nature Index, with South Africa contributing to 441 papers, Egypt 80 and Kenya 24. Strong performances are notable in geology, astronomy and palaeontology; fields in which Africa has geographic advantages such as rich fossil sites or unique geological features.

Patchy funding leads many scientists to collaborate with colleagues from richer continents. As seen in the ratio of article count (AC) to fractional count (FC), Africa is the most collaborative region (Global Overview, page S56), and all African countries have a collaboration score well above the global mean of 2.2.

Aside from financial concerns, many Egyptian scientists have difficulty obtaining the chemicals and equipment they need, explains Ramy Aziz, a microbiologist/immunologist at Cairo University. Some collaborate internationally to get what they need; others emigrate and then work with colleagues back home on research projects.

It is slow and costly to import materials and instruments into Egypt, Aziz says — a problem that worsened during the 2011 revolution. It is usual practice to travel to finish off work. For instance, Aziz spent last summer at the University of California, San Diego, in order to finish six projects that were easier to do there than in Egypt. In the United States, he says, the primers (small pieces of DNA) that he uses for gene amplification can be ordered overnight. In Cairo, it takes up to four weeks to receive them, and costs a lot more.

But, Aziz thinks things are looking up for Egyptian science. The country's government recently increased funds, although in 2012 the science ministry reportedly struggled to spend its enlarged budget due to inefficiencies in the ministry. Egyptian universities and research institutes are also increasingly giving financial incentives for publishing in high-ranking journals. However, change will take time, Aziz says. “Look for the impact of the 2011 revolution in terms of publications by 2020.”

Boosting research quality

The two top-performing African universities in the Nature Index are both South African: the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town (UCT). Both have benefited greatly from two initiatives launched in the last ten years to boost research quality at the country's universities: the South African Research Chairs initiative and the Centres of Excellence scheme. Both have provided quality supervisors for young researchers. To date 15 Centres of Excellence across the country each receive up to R10 million (US$900,000) per year (a sizeable investment for these institutions), and more than 150 research chairs have been set up with multi-million rand grants attached to them. UCT alone is home to 33 such research chairs.

UCT makes a strong showing in the Nature Index in astronomy and high-energy physics, with more than 70 papers, and does well in many other subjects. Papers in which at least half of the authors are from UCT range from a study contentiously showing that Marine Protected Areas — underwater nature reserves — can improve fishing yields without harming fisheries, to a report that fledgling birds 'blackmail' their parents into feeding them.

UCT's performance in these fields is not a coincidence, says Marilet Sienaert, executive director of UCT research. Three of the university's government-funded research chairs are in astrophysics, astronomy and marine ecology. It also hosts a government-funded Centre of Excellence looking at birds and biodiversity.

Meanwhile 'Wits', as the University of the Witwatersrand is known, makes a big showing in palaeosciences. It is also head and shoulders over UCT in terms of its publications in Nature or Science, having 9 articles — accounting for just over 15% of its WFC — in these journals. However, most of these articles come from a special issue of Science focusing on Australopithecus sediba, an early human ancestor identified from a 2-million year old fossil, discovered by Wits researchers in 2008 at the 'Cradle of Humankind' world heritage site outside Johannesburg.

“The special issue on Australopithecus sediba has certainly made a significant difference to the count of papers in Nature and Science,” says Robin Drennan, director of research development at Wits. The university was awarded a Centre of Excellence for palaeosciences in 2013. In tandem, the government launched a national palaeosciences strategy providing safe storage facilities for fossils and equipment for casting fossil replicas.

The sediba discovery opened up a new series of caves, all of which show potential for further discoveries, Drennan says. “Our expectation is that a rich and long series of knowledge will flow from this globally unique site.”

Box 1: Ethiopia: Addis Ababa University

Addis Ababa University has grand ambitions Image: Hemis/Alamy

Addis Ababa University (AAU) is Ethiopia's largest and oldest research institution. AAU has only eight articles in the Nature Index, but because one was in Nature it has a strong ratio in the Nature and Science measure. The university is strongest in the earth and environmental sciences; five of its articles are on magma upwelling in the country's Afar Depression — the only place on Earth where continental plates are at an advanced stage of separation, giving scientists a first-hand look at how oceans form.

In the Nature Index, AAU is currently 18th overall in Africa. However, it is looking to improve that standing, and has started rewarding staff that bring in external research grants or publish in international journals, says Tassew Woldehanna, vice president for research and technology transfer at AAU. “Our vision is to be one of the top five research universities in Africa,” he says.

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