Current and future climate change poses a substantial threat to the African continent. Young scientists are needed to advance Earth systems science on the continent, but they face significant challenges.
Future climate projections suggest that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to extreme climate events/disasters1,2. Climate change and environmental degradation pose a substantial threat to Africa3, but also provide an opportunity for the continent to develop local knowledge and skills, and to thrive in the long term. Strengthened investment in the study of Earth system sciences and a conscious effort to nurture scientific talents are needed to position the continent for a favourable future. However, early-career scientists in Africa face numerous challenges in securing resources, training and research positions. These challenges threaten to undermine the continent’s ability to deal with environmental change resulting from climate change.
Earth systems science is a new field in most African universities and faces many hurdles. One such challenge is underfunded and inadequate research facilities4. Computational and e-infrastructure limitations are especially salient; high demand for supercomputers and sufficient storage for big data far exceed what most African universities can afford. The ratio between the number of usable computers and users is low in most universities5. Some also struggle to bear the cost of subscribing to closed-access journals. While open-access journals provide unmeasurable succour to researchers in these institutions, scientists are left with an incomplete view of progress in their fields.
Federal governments, civil society and the private sector are the main sources of funding for Earth systems science, but the annual budgets for most African countries show very low to no funds allocated to scientific research6. This is a sombre reminder to early-career scientists that their work may be most effective if undertaken in a foreign territory. Unsurprisingly, the rate of migration by young African scientists to developed countries has significantly increased7. Investment in basic research in developed countries is recognized as the main link between innovation and national development8, but this is yet to be applied in African countries.
Climate data is crucial for basic research and decision-making support, but Africa has long struggled to maintain adequate accessible data. African weather stations are sparsely distributed9 and government investment in weather monitoring has declined10. Although Earth observation products derived from merging satellite and in situ data have improved significantly over recent decades, they still display large uncertainties over Africa9,11. Even where data exists, sharing between institutions is difficult. Data from government meteorological departments are not always accessible to local universities due to restrictive sharing policies. Researchers therefore struggle to validate research even at local scales.
Early-career scientists in Africa often lack opportunities to learn through mentorship and collaboration. Mentorship in graduate programmes and early career stages increases the chances of access to fellowships, and leads to higher research productivity, more conference presentations and grant writing12. Although some universities do have mentorship programmes, collaboration between African universities and institutes both intra- and intercontinental remains limited13. As a result, knowledge transfer is inhibited and it is difficult to align scientific agendas and initiatives.
Undeveloped academic writing skills
Developing academic writing skills is a common struggle among early postgraduates that can extend to the postdoctoral level, particularly where English is not the first language14. The inherent difficulty in communicating science adds an additional strain where researchers are already challenged to demonstrate understanding. It can compromise the quality of the work, lead to less research output and result in submission to lower-impact journals15.
Solutions and opportunities
We have outlined major challenges faced by early-career scientists in Africa that undermine the current efforts to combat climate change on the continent and call for immediate actions to urgently address these issues. African Earth system research is needed to confront the devastating effects of climate change and can serve as a platform for national development.
The African economies are among the fastest growing economies in the world, averaging 4% annually16. For this growth to continue and to ensure sustainable development, we must nurture scientific talent who can contribute to the mitigation of the extreme impacts of climate change. African countries must also recognize the role of scientific research as a catalyst for social development.
Enhancing institutional collaboration and bridging the communication gap for common research topics will help to secure funding from the private sector, governments and other institutions. One such effort is the Academy of Science of South Africa, which not only boosts public interest and awareness in science but also strengthens national and international linkages. Such initiatives should be extended to other African countries. To encourage a global scientific discourse, datasets should be shared as freely as possible17. Efforts to increase networks of weather observation stations must be pushed further to improve data quality. Collaboration with international entities is also necessary to feed the local data into global data systems. To advance the communication of scientific results, the incorporation of academic writing into mainstream science curricula is an essential step18.
With respect to training, research opportunities in the form of research exchanges and summer schools would be a step forwards. Direct facilitation of two-way collaborative exchanges of scientists between countries and promoting networks to link scientists such as the Young Earth System Scientists (YESS) community19 would help build research capacity in Africa. We have observed from a distance the efforts of the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in combating brain drain; we advocate for more concerted efforts from global institutions in this direction.
We are poised to play a critical role in shaping Earth system science in the coming decades. African governments are therefore urged to nurture scientific talent and support scientific research. Prioritizing research funding and encouraging unrestricted access to research resources is imperative. Developing skills and improving access to datasets and journal papers, as well as greater funding, will enable us to produce the research needed to address the challenges posed by climate change.