12 December 2011

Africa: Solving Problems Through Science - A Conversation with Phillip Griffiths

Photo: Regional Initiative in Science and Education
Pelly Malebe drinking tea with Professor Zeno Apostolides and fellow researcher Nick Mphangwe.

Kampala — Economies across Africa have continued to expand this year, attracting increased interest from investors, along with prospects for jobs for the large numbers of unemployed young graduates. Programs that encourage entrepreneurship are proliferating.

Alongside this momentum, there is a growing recognition that institutions of higher education are failing to produce the scientists – and the research – to underpin the creation or expansion of business and industry. The need for African solutions to African problems spurred mathematician Phillip Griffiths to launch the African Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE), a project of the Science Initiative Group at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton (IAS), New Jersey in the United States. Griffiths, a prize-winning scholar, is a former director of the Institute and was Provost of Duke University.

RISE, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a charitable foundation, trains new faculty and supports the research of faculty and graduate students at African universities. Five thematic networks link campuses across regions, sharing strengths and encouraging collaboration. Rachel Jones recently sat down with Phillip Griffiths in Kampala, Uganda, where he was attending a gathering of RISE faculty and students. Here are excerpts from their conversation.

How did your work at IAS lead you to the idea of the Science Initiative Group?

When I was director at IAS, the chair of the board was Jim Wolfensohn, [then] president of the World Bank, and he wanted to see the bank start doing something in science and technology.  So he asked if I'd put together a group of scientists, based with the IAS, to work with the bank to do capacity building in science projects in developing countries.

Describe the urgency of the need for what you are doing with RISE, particularly relating to development.

One of the first things to do in Africa is to stop importing people to come in and run scientific projects. It's not just scientific knowledge but scientific instrumentation, the whole works. We need to be able to take the best of what's out there, train and support people to develop it, and then run with it.

That's a simple and elegant way of bottom-lining it, but it's such a complicated issue.

It's very complicated, and you need people who are working near the forefront of modern science to be able to use it.  So: translate your basic resources from scientific knowledge into water, health, agriculture – and, especially, develop and adapt technologies that are needed for development. Maybe it won't be the same technologies you get from Hewlett Packard, but you will be able to adapt them and use them here.

But realistically speaking, won't it be impossible, in the near term , to not require people and funding from the outside?

I think the people [needed]are already in the countries. The funding, yes – for a while, you are going to have to have access to resources from outside. U.S. foundations can do some, but the Banks, especially the World Bank, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, can do a lot more in science and technology than they have done.

The World Bank did not even have an STI  (Science, Technology and Innovation) person until Wolfensohn, and so for the first time they have an STI office. They've done great things in Rwanda, taking simple technologies to the market place. That sort of thing could be multiplied.

The demand is there, the capacity is there, we just need to get the funding in place and the structure in place. But we can't run the thing out of IAS; it needs to be based in Africa.

Given the global economic situation, is that realistic?

The World Bank has the capacity. We have a $300 million fund sitting there for regional tertiary education in Africa. So we are in discussions about taking a good chunk of that and scaling up activities. We want to get people trained here. Do it in the universities; do it in networks; put up centers of excellence. Already there are two Nelson Mandela Institutes – one in Abuja [Nigeria] and one in Arusha [Tanzania].

My conversation with Julius Ecuru  [Assistant Executive Secretary, Uganda National Council for Science and Technology] left me feeling hopeful that if you have lots of smart young and dynamic people in policy positions, that can surely have an impact. Can this initiative develop enough leverage to encourage policy makers to do the "right thing"?

One thing that's been in the back of my mind is taking on the AERC [the African Economic Research Consortium]. That's a very successful network; it's sort of one of the models for us. It's based in Nairobi, and was put in place 25 years ago. It originally was just research oriented, but then it got into training.

Most of the ministers of finance in east and southern Africa are AERC graduates. I'd love for us to connect with the AERC and say, "Let's look at our natural resources and explore how we can benefit."

A lot of people have become cynical about whether policy makers will ever prioritize this issue. What will the year 2050 look like on the African continent if policymakers don't embrace science, technology and innovation?

You know, I think about your question, and I can't picture it, because the change that I've seen in 10 years has been very positive.  I just cannot imagine that the human resources, that the people here in Africa, with the resources that they have, won't be able to do great things with them.

From outside, again, the World Bank has enormous leverage, and if they and the African Development Bank could get capacity building in STI front and centre, things could improve. They could negotiate with the ministers of finance when they are talking about country assistance strategies and say, "Look, you don't have STI in [your budget] or it's only 1%. They could perhaps get those percentages pushed up to 5%, and work from there. To me, that would be the surest way I know to have 2050 look a lot different than now.

There is such a powerful confluence of issues on the continent: gender, culture, economics. A 21-year-old woman might want to be a research scientist, but there are so many things working against that happening. Why is empowering  young Africans, helping them aspire to find solutions for development challenges, so important in your view?

Next year I hope we will have our annual meeting and do what we did last year in South Africa – get the students in to present their work. We took three extra days to bring the students in, and I wish we had videotaped that and broadcast it! The enthusiasm they had, and the feeling that by working together with their compatriots, that they can make a difference, that these are solvable problems and here is part of the solution. That's the best answer I can give you.

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