Students attending their graduation ceremony at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare in 2013. Credit: Xu Lingui/Xinhua/

Following years of chronic funding shortages and political neglect, the Zimbabwe Academy of Science (ZAS) is on its knees and has made a plea for support from the large Zimbabwean diaspora.

The academy has historically survived on donations and membership fees, but this is no longer sustainable, said ZAS head Christopher Mutambirwa at a meeting of Zimbabwean expatriates in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 14 September. According to Mutambirwa, who is a former environmental scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, the academy has fewer than 100 fellows, and the country's economic distress means that fewer than 15 members now even pay their fees.

The aim of the meeting — initiated by the Academy of Science of South Africa and which included ZAS members and Zimbabwean academics in South Africa — was to find ways to support Zimbabwean research.

Among the most drastic solutions proposed were to move the ZAS's headquarters (currently in the Tropical Resources Ecology Centre at the University of Zimbabwe) to Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, or to make the academy a 'virtual' entity — without a permanent office or administrative staff. The ZAS has already had to let go its sole full-time employee.

Economic woes

Zimbabwe has a strong agriculture sector, with tobacco and cotton among its main exports. Traditionally, much of the country's research has come from ties between the country's universities and the agriculture industry.

The economy took a negative turn after 2000, when the government of President Robert Mugabe — who has been in power since 1987 and is now 92 — fast-tracked a programme of land expropriations and agricultural productivity plummeted. The resulting economic and political turmoil, with a long-term decline in gross domestic product and bouts of hyperinflation, has caused millions to leave the country. Many have crossed the border into neighbouring South Africa, including some scientists. “Without enough money around, it’s made a number of people leave,” says Christopher Chetsanga, a biochemist who heads the country’s Council for Higher Education and was president of the ZAS at its founding in 2004.

Dexter Tagwireyi (left), head of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Science, and Zimbabwe Academy of Science president Christopher Mutambirwa at last week's meeting. Credit: ASSAf

There are no official figures on the flight of skilled Zimbabweans, or on how many researchers remain in the country; according to a UNESCO report, a government survey in 2012 found that about 1,300 researchers were there at that time.

Funding down

Still, Zimbabwe has consistently produced between 300 and 400 peer-reviewed papers a year, and the ZAS is one of the few institutions in the country that have consistently advocated for science. Both Chetsanga and Mutambirwa said that the ZAS had pleaded with government to recognize the academy through an act of parliament, which would then put it on the government’s payroll and ringfence funding. But according to the Zimbabwean parliament’s website, there is no ZAS bill on the roll, and the current economic crisis means that the government is unlikely to allocate money to an academy of science when it cannot meet its own debt-repayment deadlines with international funding agencies.

The academics Nature spoke to cited lack of funding for research and equipment as their biggest challenge. The majority of research funding comes from the government, which is then disbursed via the country’s 17 universities, the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe and the Research Council of Zimbabwe. The latter focuses on social sciences and humanities; sustainable environment and resource management; public health; and national security. It saw its funding decline from US$556,907 in 2013 to $499,769 in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Brain drain

Because of the country’s politically fractious relations with North American and European countries, international funding and collaboration have declined. The country has been subject to international sanctions since 2002, over alleged electoral fraud and human-rights violations. “We don’t have many friends as a country,” Dexter Tagwireyi, a toxicologist at the University of Zimbabwe and head of the Zimbabwe Young Academy of Science, said at the Johannesburg meeting. “Opportunities like competitive grants, you don’t even see Zimbabwe on the list.”

Researchers also struggle with the same endemic problems as other Zimbabweans: chronic water and electricity outages and telecommunications difficulties. At the moment, the ZAS's activities are voluntary and unpaid.

A number of solutions to the dire straits that the ZAS and Zimbabwean research in general are in were proposed — such as promoting ZAS membership, collaboration and co-supervision among the diaspora, and basing the academy online or in South Africa — but some were more palatable than others.

A virtual organization would not solve the issue of funding, they said. Numerous Zimbabwean academics reject the idea of a Pretoria-based ZAS. Sociologist Rudo Gaidzanwa at the University of Zimbabwe says that this move would be regressive and would “send the wrong signal”.

“Our futures are tied to the future of our country,” she says. “Until our situation improves economically, we’re going to haemorrhage academics.”