BERNARD SLIPPER AND EVA ALISIC
It is widely accepted that the future of scientific development lies in enabling teams made up of people from different countries and disciplines. To do really great work, these often need to be quite big teams. But training programmes for scientists don’t typically include the types of leadership skills needed to pull this off.
The kinds of skills needed to lead projects with diverse, multidisciplinary teams include reflective practice, strategic planning, and engagement with a host of stakeholders, effective communication, and the ability to foster a culture of collaboration. These kinds of skills in research programmes are especially important in the developing world. But it’s also where programmes for their development are in shortest supply. But there are some glimmers of hope. One of these is the Africa Science Leadership Programme, which was launched in 2015 and is co-ordinated by Future Africa.
In this programme, we are grappling with questions around science leadership, such as how to be more intentional in providing the support base and skills for young African researchers to lead initiatives. We aim to inspire the best talent to enter and stay in the system; to expand investment in their careers, and to simultaneously grow the quality of research outputs.
By training young scientists on the continent to step into leadership roles and guide major projects, we hope to transform the system to more effectively contribute to solving Africa’s challenges. It is clear that the speed and quality of the development of science capacity in Africa depend not only on infrastructure and the technical training of people. It’s also intimately linked to the quality of people who are able to inspire and lead change.
Countries in Africa lag behind the developed world in terms of scientific capacity and output. And the situation is not improving fast enough. Despite substantial investment over the past decades, developing countries – with the exception of Brazil and China – appear to be losing ground in research. Many of their brightest scholars have been trained around the world. Those who return home battle with poor infrastructure and a lack of support. Others emigrate for good.
Across the continent, the bulk of the responsibility of developing science falls to scientists who are currently at an early stage of their career, or sometimes mid-career. Very few are supported or equipped for this task. Africa’s science capacity needs to expand by more than 10 times to have half the number of scientists per population than the UK has. For some countries, it needs to expand by as much as 100 times to reach that level. It’s a huge challenge to build this capacity given that resources are low, support systems are weak and competition is strong.
One way to fast track the process is to focus on raising leaders. They have a greater multiplying effect: they are equipped to lead the transformation of their environment. It’s worth sharing one of our inaugural fellows’ stories to illustrate how tough the continent can be for young researchers who are expected to step up as leaders. When Connie Nshemereirwe returned home after her PhD in Education Science in the Netherlands, she resumed work at Uganda Martyrs University. It’s a small and relatively isolated rural university. She could identify only two women in the whole country who worked in the same domain of educational measurement. Both had moved out of academia. She also lacked the high-performance computing power needed for her analyses. Although talented and highly motivated, she didn’t see a way to move forward: she had no community, no mentors, and no infrastructure.
Today Dr Nshemereirwe is the elected co-chair of the Global Young Academy. With a prominent voice, she is facilitating science capacity development in every region of the world, with an emphasis on Africa.