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African ECR motivation to leave, based on continent where currently based.Credit: GloSYS/Global Young Academy

(Article written with the GloSYS Africa team and the Global Young Academy)

Young scientists are crucial for Africa’s advancement and a necessity for the continent’s economic development. Yet, they face persistent barriers to success that cause them to leave their home countries, or abandon a research career.

Realizing the scarcity of research dedicated to young scientists, and the lack of knowledge on the strategies to best support them, the Global Young Academy (GYA) dedicated itself to assessing the challenges facing young researchers around the world. Its global state of young scientists (GloSYS) strategic project aims to initiate change and catalyze improvement in the global system of science by identifying the interconnected challenges early-career researchers (ECRs) face throughout their academic, professional, and family life. Applying the same mixed methods study design, utilising a core survey structure augmented by region-specific questions, and developed in collaboration with local researchers, GloSYS regional studies are collecting integrable data allowing intra- and inter-regional comparisons and changes over time.1,2,3 Online surveys and interviews, and social media are enabling unprecedented access to voices which were hard to reach by traditional paper-based and in-person questionnaires.

Tracking the Global State of Young Scientists

Existing data on the challenges facing the African research system highlight major structural contributors: low but fast-growing enrolment rates, under-funding and gross inefficiencies, low research output and brain drain, and insufficient quality assurance.3-5 To inform innovative solutions to counter these structural challenges, the GloSYS Africa study put emphasis on identifying the contextual factors influencing the individual careers of African ECRs, paying particular attention to research training journeys, equity policies, mobility barriers, and perceptions and attitudes to pursuing a research career.

One of the unique designs of GloSYS Africa was the collection of data tracking the international movement of respondents for any period over 3 months. What emerged was a highly mobile cohort, analysing 1,157 eligible survey responses revealing that 64.5% had moved countries at least once in their life and 29.1% had lived, worked or studied in two or more countries not of their birth, in the last decade. Amongst African born respondents 8.5% were currently living in one of 32 countries outside Africa.

Respondents included 603 PhD holders (46% female) and 554 master’s holders (50% female; 69% doing a PhD), with a median age of 36, irrespective of gender. Whilst 70.6% of respondents received their master’s in their country of birth, only 53.9% received their PhD at home and 30% received their PhD outside Africa. A quarter of all respondents were not citizens where they were currently based, with South Africa having the largest contingent of foreign ECR in Africa.

The cohort of Africa ECR surveyed was of a highly motivated group driven by a desire to create new knowledge for the benefit of their communities, but various structural inhibitors prevented them from succeeding in their vision. Underpinning most of these was access to funding and assistance in acquiring funding. The trickle-down effects of this were limited infrastructure and resources to enable research excellence, high teaching loads, and inefficient support structures. African ECRs wanted to spend more time on research-related tasks and less time on administration and teaching. Moving internationally, even for short trips, was felt to open opportunities to increase research output through improved access to equipment and new collaborations, but also temporarily relieving teaching duties to focus on research.

This perception was supported by the quantitative data. Low research output correlated with a lack of funding received in the last 3 years, a lack of support in identifying and applying for funding, a lack of training opportunities to develop professional skills, and job insecurity. Conversely, having moved internationally in the last decade correlated with increased funding success and publication count in the previous 3-years. The circularity of the challenge is evident; there is a need for funding and support to be mobile, which perpetuates future funding and increased publication outputs.

Overall, these challenges appear to have resulted in a decrease in the confidence to pursue a research career, which fell from 42.0% at graduation to 34% at the time of surveying.

An experience of gender, racial and hiring-practice inequality was also associated with decreased job satisfaction and research outputs. Inequitable hiring practises (59.4%), racial discrimination (51.8%) and restrictions on geographical mobility (51.7%) were the most common form of inequity to have been experienced with some form of perceived hinderance on career success.

Although more males than females reported having children (62.4%) vs 47%), more males than females reported having lived, worked, or studied internationally in the last 10-years (68.8% vs. 54.6%). Given the importance of mobility on increased publication and funding success, increasing female accessibility to mobility, via mechanisms including the provision of childcare subsidies and parental leave within funding schemes and employment benefits may increase opportunity equity.

The decrease in career confidence of African ECRs was reflected by a strong desire to leave their current location, either permanently (13%), temporarily (29.9%), or considering it at some later stage (36.8%). Of the 834 respondents with an intention to move, 18.9% intended to move within Africa, whilst 81.1% were moving outside Africa. Surprisingly, North America was the favoured destination despite few respondents previously travelling there. The most common motivation for those living within Africa to move was research (34.7%) and career-development (28.4%) related reasons (Figure 1).

It is important to highlight that despite major similarities in the challenges experienced by African ECRs there were also regional differences in funding support received, infrastructure access, unemployment, racial inequalities and struggles with mental health. It is therefore important that developed recommendations for change consider the diversity and context of the challenges faced across Africa.

More detail on the GloSYS projects is available at: