The central role of the modern research university within the knowledge economy is now generally appreciated. Although it is recognized that knowledge is also produced outside the university, there is—if anything—greater appreciation today of the critical role and function of the university in the production of scientific knowledge. There is every indication that the central role of the university in modern day knowledge economies will only increase as the economy and society become even more reliant on knowledge.

However, it is not self-evident that this trend necessarily applies to universities in many poor and developing countries and specifically not to many sub-Saharan African countries. In many of these countries the university is often the main, if not only, site of scientific knowledge production. Unlike many of the developed countries in the North, these countries do not have an abundance of private research laboratories, well-resourced by government institutes. Such countries rely heavily on these universities for producing basic research as well as for being a reservoir of applied and problem-solving research and the production of highly skilled knowledge workers. Unfortunately, over the last thirty years, the research capacity at many of these institutions has been gradually eroded to the extent that one could not refer to these universities as vibrant and sustainable scientific institutions. In fact, one could claim that science in many African countries has, in the recent past, been systematically de-institutionalized. This currently has and will continue to have negative effects on scientific innovation in Africa.
The Decline of University Research in Africa
Various international forces associated with the globalization and internationalization of trade in the 1980s and 1990s have had a devastating effect on the economies of many African countries. The decline in export volumes and the relative decline in the price of primary products in world trade in the 1980s and 1990s, combined with the mishandling of exchange rates and of external reserves, and the huge external debt overhang together created major resource gaps for the countries of Africa. This put serious pressure on their import capacity and the availability of resources for essential economic and social investment. The result was an increased dependence of the typical sub-Saharan African country on aid from developed countries.

At the same time, international agencies, most notably the World Bank, decided to privilege expenditure on basic education at the expense of support for higher education. This policy position was based on two premises. The first was the belief that the returns on investments in primary and secondary education are higher than those to higher education. The second reason relates to concerns that equity and access to basic education would naturally lead to an emphasis on primary education, which increased exponentially in many African countries. The result was quite predictable, with many universities thrown into financial crisis, laboratories and libraries not receiving any maintenance, overcrowded lecture rooms, and flight of the top academics from these institutions.

Research and scholarship would be one of the main losers during these years. Africa’s share of world science, as measured in papers published in the citation indexes of the Institute for Scientific Information, have been declining steadily over the past decade. Bibliometric studies done at the University of Leiden’s Centre for Science and Technology Studies show that sub-Saharan Africa’s share of world scientific papers declined from one percent in 1987 to 0.7 percent in 1996. These diminishing shares of African science overall do not reflect a decrease in an absolute sense, but rather an increase in publication output less than the worldwide growth rate. Africa has lost 11 percent of its share in global science since its peak in 1987; sub-Saharan science has lost almost a third (31 percent).

Numerous studies have been conducted over the past 10 to15 years that demonstrate, quite convincingly, that research at former well-resourced and supported institutions such as Makerere University in Uganda, Ibadan in Nigeria, and University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, have deteriorated. Research infrastructure and the general state of laboratories at many institutions have suffered from a lack of maintenance and lag in the replacement of old equipment. In addition, the quality of library resources has remained poor overall, with many university libraries not even using automated management systems. The demand for sufficient research funding for ongoing research and scholarship continues as does the need for proper research management and support at most of these institutions.

The cumulative effect of the funding policies of the last two decades of the 1900s and the huge growth in student enrollments in higher education institutions, combined with continuing political instability in many African countries have created a state of affairs which is best described as the “de-institutionalization” of science.

De-institutionalized Research
Science systems in developed and highly industrialized countries have a certain number of clear and evident features. Such systems are dense (well-populated) with scientific institutions, defined as any formal organization or entity which is dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge production, dissemination, and utilization. This definition includes bodies that perform research and development (R&D), such as university centers, laboratories, and institutes, as well as R&D performing entities outside the higher education sector. It also includes scientific publishing houses, journals, conferences, workshops, and seminars that are “organizations” for the dissemination of scientific knowledge. Additionally, bodies such as technology incubators, technology transfer offices, patenting offices, and so on promote the utilization and commercialization of scientific knowledge.

In a modern science system there are typically a multitude of these scientific institutions that perform clearly articulated functions and roles and together constitute what could be termed the “national mode of scientific production,” according to Roland Waast and Jacques Gaillard of the Institute for Development Research in Paris. The “national mode” means that science is conducted for the public good and that the direction of science is shaped and steered by a nation’s most pressing socioeconomic needs. It also implies that the state assumes a major responsibility for financing research and development activities.

Unfortunately, few or none of the features of modern science system apply to many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the scientific institutions in these countries are fragile and susceptible to the vagaries of political and military events, are severely under-resourced, and suffer because of a lack of clarity and articulation of science governance issues (demonstrated by constant shifts in ministerial responsibility for science). In fact, one could even refer to some of these science systems and the associated institutions as operating in a subsistence mode where they struggle to even reproduce themselves. A “subsistence mode” refers to a system that basically produces knowledge for its own use only and does not export knowledge. In fact, it does not make a significant contribution in the global game of knowledge production. It is even debatable whether one can talk of a science system in many of these countries as they do not exhibit typical “systemic” characteristics. Institutions are not typically aligned through input, process, and output flows, and there is no typical systemic behavior in response to external changes and demands. Rather, the image of an assemblage of fragile, somewhat disconnected and constantly under-resourced institutions, is perhaps a more apt metaphor to describe the science arrangements in some of these countries.

But one should be cautious of over-generalization and over-simplification, as there are also some instances of small but robust institutions (some universities and research centers) that have survived the ruptures of political changes and economic fluctuations and where pockets of significant science are still found. In these isolated cases (for example in Burkina Faso, Botswana, and more recently Rwanda), science is publicly supported by the government, and there is reasonable political stability and good governance of the science system. In many of these cases, there are also well-established links and collaborative networks with strong research establishments elsewhere in the world.

But what are the factors that have previously and continue to shape and affect the de-institutionalization of science in these countries? Four major historical influences on the nature of scientific institutions in sub-Saharan Africa are subsequently discussed: first, the continuing legacy of colonial science in many countries; second, the destabilizing influence of political events and civil wars; third, the role of international agencies in shaping African sciences; fourth, the gradual erosion of human capital through the brain drain.
Legacy of Colonial Science
Many of the research institutes that were established during colonial rule in Africa still exist in African countries. It is now well documented that the role of different colonial powers in the formation of scientific institutions varied greatly across continents. This is both a function of the nature of the institutions that were established, as well as the “model” of “colonial” science pursued.

The British model of colonial science privileged the establishment of botanical gardens in many of the colonies as sites to conduct plant and other related research. This model was shaped by the influence exerted by the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew in London. For example, a botanical garden was established in Lagos, Nigeria in 1887. Interestingly enough the British did, over the years, attempt to give more responsibility to the colonies in steering their own research agendas. To accomplish this regional approach to colonial science and technology (S&T), research councils were created in British Africa, modeled after the British Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. This formulated regional research policies and priorities and then made recommendations on the allocation of research funds, as well as on projects assigned to institutes.

The French approach to colonial science was very different. Research done in the colonies had to be done through the mediation of institutions based in Paris such as the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, which had a section devoted to tropical agriculture, and the Ecole Supérieur d’Application d’Agriculture Tropicale, which provided the training for Colonial Agricultural Officers. It was only the advent of the Pasteur Institute which pioneered the organization of research activities in the region when it established local branches. The major translocation of French science in Francophone Africa occurred from the late nineteenth century onwards until the 1950s with the establishment of six local Pasteur institutes in Saigon (1890), Algiers (1894), Nhatrang (1895), Madagascar (1902), Tunis (1903), Brazzaville (1910), and Dakar (1913). Unlike the British case, only modest effort was accorded by French colonial or metropolitan authorities to the development of research activities in African colonies. Hence, the S&T activities of each institute or territory were explicitly and implicitly assimilated and undertaken by the research institutions in metropolitan France that had African branches. Moreover, the regional centers that were so established were controlled by the French in terms of central management and staffing, as these centers were dominated by expatriates, and no concrete efforts were made to develop the local capacity for independent research in the colonies.

It is perhaps fair to say—and somewhat ironically so—that the legacy of the French model has been more permanent and eventually more beneficial to the science system in those countries where it became embedded. Precisely because of the strong link to the center in France (which is still today maintained in many cases), these institutions (such as the Pasteur institutes) perform a major role within the local science systems and are examples of pockets of research excellence in the midst of a generally fragile science landscape.

However, the fact of the matter is that this situation does not build local scientific institutions. In fact, too great reliance on such foreign institutes may even be used as an excuse not to develop one’s own institutions.
Political Instability and Civil Wars
The destabilizing influence of many regional and local political events has led to the closing of scientific institutions and universities in many countries and therefore effectively put science back many decades. Not least among these events were the civil war in Rwanda and Burundi, the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia, Amin’s dictatorship in Uganda, the civil wars in Mozambique and Angola, and the more recently repressive regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. These events have had different negative impacts on institution building in these countries. In many cases it led to the suspension of overseas research funding, the closing of institutions because of lack of government funding, and perhaps most notably the huge flight of top academics and scientists to other parts of the world. A good example of the devastating impact on a single institution is that of the University of Makerere in Uganda. Once a major site for internationally recognized good research in the 1950s and 1960s, it suffered because of civil war and lack of government funding in the 1980s and beyond. This has forced the University in the 1990s to take in many more students than it could support (in order to raise fees), resulting in the admission of over 30,000 students for a campus built for less than 15,000. It is only in recent years that student growth has been capped and a decline in student numbers has materialized.
International Research and Funding Agencies
The role of international agencies in shaping and steering science on the African continent cannot be underestimated. In this regard we include the role of international development and aid organizations such as the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, International Development Research Centre (Canada), and many others. On the positive side, these institutions and agencies have, to a large extent, managed to sustain minimal scientific production in many countries where formal S&T structures have failed or seriously declined. So, for example, it is clear that SIDA’s continuing support to Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia since 1976 has sustained a minimal scientific output in the natural and health sciences. On the negative side, it could be argued that some organizations and agencies have been more interested in pursuing their own international research agenda’s and have not done enough to ensure the long-term sustainability of a local science base in Africa. In fact, some commentators may argue that international funding for doctoral students through sandwich programs (which entails spending time at a northern university), has in fact been one of the contributing factors to brain drain. Students on doctoral scholarships from developing countries, who spend time at well-resourced northern universities, are subsequently better qualified, certainly more networked, and therefore able to leave their country of origin and seek employment elsewhere.

General concerns in the human resource area include poor pay and conditions, which have resulted in extensive and persistent brain drain. Studies sponsored by the Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development in Africa reveal that up to 30 percent of African scientists–excluding other professionals–are lost due to the brain drain. According to the Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration, an estimated number of 27,000 skilled Africans left the continent for industrialized countries between 1960 and 1975. Since 1990, at least 20,000 qualified people have left Africa every year. Accordingly, Alex Nunn of Leeds Metropolitan University notes that this situation leaves Africa with 20,000 fewer people who can deliver public services and articulate calls for greater democracy and development.
The Restoration of African Research Institutions
Much of current scientific inquiry at many institutions in developing countries is under-funded, is often driven by the individual scientist’s priorities and interests, and is ultimately aimed at advancing the career of the individual academic.

Investment in R&D in the majority of African countries is low. Despite commitments by ministers of science and technology to strive toward investing at least one percent of GDP on R&D annually, the reality is that most countries spend less than 0.2 percent. As a result, very few governments support public research through a national system of research grants and scholarships. This also explains the high reliance of many African scientists on foreign funding. The solution is straightforward. The symbolic commitment to increased investment in R&D by African governments needs to be put into practice. It seems as if, despite the rhetoric, governments still view research and knowledge production as a luxury given the huge pressures on addressing socio-economic challenges such as poverty, infectious diseases, and food security.

Since funding for research is not channeled through a properly articulated and monitored system of public funding (e.g. through a national funding agency), the individual scientist and academic at a university receives his or her funding directly from foreign funders or through the mediation of a local representative. Those who are privileged to receive such funding use it to pursue their own research interests and also to advance their own careers. This allows them to travel overseas, to attend international conferences, and in general to have the required resources to build their own individual research capital. This focus on building one’s own curriculum vitae must be understood within the context of poor academic salaries and working conditions, as well as a general lack of sufficient research and library resources. But, this kind of scientific endeavor rarely converts into building institutional research capacity. It is not linked, for example, to training doctoral or even post-doctoral students. In fact, there are so few doctoral programs at many of these universities, which means that “reproducing” existing scientific work through doctoral students is not even possible.

Again, there are exceptions, such as the highly successful Ethiopian Flora project that has been supported by SIDA/SAREC since 1975. But this program is an exception precisely because the support was lengthy (nearly three decades), focused (it prioritized on domain of science), and was augmented with post-graduate student training.

Ultimately the restoration and improvement of African research institutions, specifically African universities, require a strategy that focuses on institution-building interventions rather than on building the capacity of individual scientists. This does not mean that the training of and support to individual scientists, whether they are emerging or established scientists, is unimportant. On the contrary, such individual capacity building should be embedded in a framework of building the institutions of science.

A focus on institution-building interventions and support should be based on the following key tenets: scientific institutions need to be understood broadly not only as including the R&D performing centers and institutes at universities, but also including graduate programs (especially doctoral programs) that produce the scientists of the future. Interventions aimed at rebuilding scientific institutions are needed long-term and must take into account the “eco-system” of science: the governance and regulatory frameworks of science in a particular country, the role of international donors and funding agencies, the social inscription of science in a society, and the general socioeducational fabric of that society.
Practical Suggestions
These theoretical tenets translate into a number of practical suggestions. The first is focused niche area support. Governments and international funders should be encouraged to shift their support from individual scientists to supporting research centers and institutes, which either have already achieved some critical mass or have the potential to do so. Such centers should be sufficiently resourced to enable them to undertake basic and fundamental research in critical areas of national interest, with some independence from commissioned contract research. In order for these centers to be sustainable, it is essential that one or more doctoral programs and post-doctoral fellowship schemes be linked to the activities of the center. The establishment and support of more doctoral programs is therefore equally important.Statistics show that large proportions of graduate students in many African countries are forced to study outside of their native country (increasingly in South Africa but mostly in Europe) as there are not sufficient doctoral programs at their home institutions. The notion of a research center which is advocated here must thus include a combination of research work, post-graduate training, and a proper integration between these two components.

A second need is training and technical advice in research management and graduate studies. Very few African universities outside of South Africa have well-established research management offices. Although some effort has been made in recent years to strengthen the local expertise in this field, most notably Carnegie’s support of the Society of Research Administrators in Africa, this is simply not enough. Our experience shows that many research managers at these universities are recently appointed, and they have very little knowledge on how to manage the institutional research profile, to access funding, and to find support to do so. In addition, research directors and managers of doctoral programs require much more training and support across a wide range of skills and competencies in such areas as the supervision of graduate students, the development research plans and strategies, and codes of conduct on integrity in research.

The third suggestion is to continue investment in the essential information and communication technologies (ICT). Research centers and programs are in a sense the “superstructure” of science. But it depends on proper functioning and effectiveness on an extensive ICT infrastructure (fiber optic networks, information systems development, sufficient bandwidth, and automated library management systems). Much effort and funding have been invested in this area over the past five to ten years. However, it is clear that many challenges remain. In fact, experience has shown that many universities have outdated administrative systems with archaic procurement policies that make the simple acquisition of computer equipment extremely difficult. When they manage to acquire such equipment, the absence of a local support system (in the form of local vendors and maintenance companies) means that broken equipment often does not get repaired or replaced.

Lastly, support and funding for local scientific publishing in African countries are essential. The dissemination and uptake of scientific research is a process that requires its own dedicated scientific institutions: journals, publishing houses, electronic repositories, and data archives. One practical proposal would be to support some of the already operational university presses (of which there are a number). These publishing houses, which are linked to universities, perform multiple functions in that they often publish local academic journals, the best doctoral dissertations that are produced at universities, and of course worthwhile monographs and other academic books. One of the success stories in this regard is SIDA/SAREC’s support of more than 20 scientific journals in Ethiopia in recent times. Through their support, Ethiopian scholars have had access to high-quality journals and managed to disseminate their research findings to both academic and non-academic audiences. However, it is equally important that such support is accompanied by proper training and technical advice in such matters as scientific publishing, editorial practices, and peer review procedures, to ensure high-quality publishing.

It is important to emphasize that the interventions listed above all aim to build a system of interconnected scientific institutions rather than focus on advancing the careers of either emerging or well-established scientists. African universities need support programs that will build and rebuild their institutions of science. There will always be a place for individual grants and scholarships that advance the career of individuals. However, in many cases the advancement of a personal scientific career occurs at the expense of building sustainable scientific institutions. In well-articulated and well-resourced science systems, one finds a “co-production” of individual and institutional scientific endeavors. In such systems, the creative scientific effort of the individual occurs within sustainable institutions and knowledge networks and in fact serves to reproduce them. Because of the fragility of African science systems after years of neglect and poor management, such mutual reinforcement and co-production between the individual and the institution does not exist.

In the final analysis, the restoration of research institutions and their development into centers of scientific excellence will only take place if future interventions focus on re-establishing them as proper scientific institutions, namely institutions that are dedicated to the pursuit of science for the common good and the attainment of national goals and priorities.