3 January 2013

Africa: A New Model to Strengthen Higher Education

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Photo: Lauren Everitt/AllAfrica
John Mwero, a RISE award recipient, is now a professor of engineering at the University of Nairobi.

For decades after sub-Saharan Africa's emergence from the colonial era, its universities were weakened by civil strife and political turmoil.

Faculties of science and engineering declined as older professors retired faster than they were replaced; young graduates lacked financial support to complete their PhDs; professors lacked the resources to do research; and students and faculty alike found themselves professionally and geographically isolated from their peers.

Over the past decade, the urgency of this situation has become clear to institutions in Africa, and to some foundations and other donor organizations. I have had the privilege of chairing a small organization, the Science Initiative Group (SIG), that seeks to address these challenges. The objective of SIG, which consists of a board of international scientific experts and a small administrative office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, is to help strengthen scientific capacity in developing countries. In partnership with Carnegie Corporation of New York, it supports a competitive program called the Regional Initiative in Science and Education (RISE) which allows post-graduate students and academic staff to work collaboratively and to advance in their professional careers.

RISE was designed during a series of discussions with African academic and scientific leaders. The more we learned about the damaging effects of academic isolation, the more strongly we saw the need for collaboration and partnerships. Therefore a defining feature of RISE is that it does not support individual people or institutions, but rather networks of academic institutions, each of which is required to have at least three member "nodes" in different countries. Five RISE networks were selected during a competition held in 2008 and judged by independent scientists. Although the scale of RISE is still small (we have supported about 140 students in the last five years), the program has become a credible model we hope to expand and strengthen in the coming years.

RISE's fifth annual meeting, held October 12-13, 2012, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, provided a snapshot of activities and participants from all five networks. Each network was represented by varying numbers of faculty supervisors and students The networks are similar in size, and all reported on their accomplishments during the past year. A typical report was that of Prof. Charles de Koning of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, who described highlights of SABINA, the Southern African Biochemistry and Informatics for Natural Products Network:

• The network supports 18 students in four countries at MSc and PhD levels, most of whom are academic staff poised to take leadership roles in their home universities.

• In 2012, six of the 18 completed theses in phytochemistry, synthetic chemistry, and bioinformatics. Network members published eight professional papers on various topics, including the role of chemical synthesis in developing new medicines from natural products, including anti-cancer agents; isolating and purifying novel compounds from four plants from Tanzania to help people with HIV; and molecular modeling of certain enzymes to locate the "lock and key" mechanisms.

• Students benefited from a variety of networking activities, including co-supervision and student exchanges between partner institutions, enabling collaborative research and training on expensive equipment not available at other network institutions; and short-term faculty visits to give short courses, lectures, and to mentor student projects.

The other four networks are AMSEN, the African Materials Science and Engineering Network; AFNNET, the African Natural Products Network; SSAWRN, the Sub-Saharan Africa Water Resources Network; and WIO-RISE, the Western Indian Ocean Regional Initiative. Like SABINA, these four networks, too, reported impressive achievements, including three patents and 14 publications generated by AFNNET students, professional workshop presentations in engineering by several AMSEN students, an array of publications by SSAWRN, and four courses offered by WIO-RISE faculty at institutions other than their own, which adds value to partner institutions. Several networks had also leveraged their grants to generate additional funding from government agencies and research organizations.

From the outset, we have thought about the best way to evaluate a network model that is new and not easily compared with others, such as the stand-alone university or "center of excellence." The quantitative outputs mentioned above, including numbers of students, publications, and patents, are traditional measures. But we have also observed many other outputs of RISE that are not quantitative by nature. For example, the advantage of collaborating with colleagues has become a general feature of modern science, which today has become a team endeavor.

Because RISE provides support for students and faculty to share resources and collaborate across institutional and national boundaries, its emphasis on collaboration is doubly important.

For example, Stephen Kiama, a leader of the AFNNET network, recalled at the annual meeting his own days as a bachelor's and master's student at the University of Nairobi. "I was just alone with my supervisor, who wasn't even in my field," he told the group. "When I had a problem, it was all up to me." He went outside Africa for his PhD in biology, at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and there he found the support he craved. "We had a group, and we met every Tuesday to exchange ideas and emotional support. I think RISE is doing that as well. Students can ask each other questions, encourage one another, bring synergies."

Another important goal for RISE is to measure the value added to students who are trained in a network environment. This is difficult to quantify, so we try to measure value through interviews, anecdotes, and other evidence. For example, several South African universities have shown consistent generosity in making available advanced instrumentation, such as MRIs, x-ray diffraction machines, and electron microscopes to students from universities without these resources.

There are also benefits in bringing the networks together to compare administrative experiences, equipment availability, and curricula. These cross-network benefits – anecdotal as they are – were not anticipated in our initial planning, but they make the case for a model like RISE, where networks naturally interact through meetings and communications.

As Andrea Johnson of Carnegie Corporation observed at the meeting, "Many anecdotes together become quantitative data." RISE benefits greatly from Carnegie Corporation's enlightened partnership; it is unusual for a foundation to consider a third program renewal and to be so constructively engaged in the program's planning, formation, and evaluation.

One positive outcome of RISE is the development of a common MSc curriculum in Natural Products Technology and Value Chain for the three universities in the African Natural Products Network (AFNNET). Winning approval from all three university councils has not been easy, despite the close historic ties between the University of Nairobi and Makerere University in Uganda, which were administratively joined with the University of Dar es Salaam under British rule from 1963 to 1970 as the University of East Africa. After several years of work by Prof. Kiama and others, students can now earn their master's degree from any of the institutions and seek out the mentors, equipment, or courses they need across all three partners.

Next Steps for RISE

As RISE matures, we hope to see the outputs of research applied to the broader needs of society. At the 2012 annual meeting, Philip Mulugo, Deputy Minister of Education and Vocational Training for Tanzania, touched on this goal in praising the engagement of the University of Dar es Salaam with development. "Without the link between academia and industry," he said, "development slows. We know that such essential materials as fertilizers and plastics can be traced back to research in university laboratories. Industry must be represented in the research agenda."

I agree with the deputy minister that RISE must contribute in significant ways to economic development of sub-Saharan Africa. For this we need a "two-way street": more "push" from the science and engineering community, and more "pull" from the private sector. One of our goals is to do a better job informing the private sector about what S&T can contribute to industry, and in building partnerships between academia and the private sector. This is one job where governments are essential – in catalyzing these partnerships and articulating the role of research in development.

RISE will work to do this through its new partnership with the African University of Science and Technology (AUST), located in Abuja, Nigeria.

The formation of AUST in 2007 was supported by the World Bank and African Development Bank, and a year ago Prof. Wole Soboyejo moved from Princeton University to become AUST president and CEO. Prof. Soboyejo is committed to building science and engineering capacity throughout Africa in partnership with the private sector. At the same time, AUST will become the administrative center of RISE in Africa. The two programs have already had joint activities, including a Pan-African Materials Science Workshop in 2011, and together they hope to join and extend research and development networks throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Prof. Soboyejo spoke at our annual meeting on the topic of networks, which he views as not only educational platforms, but as "catalysts for development." He noted that "It is crucial to diffuse knowledge across the continent. The conventional center of excellence is isolated and doesn't easily share ideas and resources. Networks with nodes can do this naturally, serving as catalysts for innovation while training the next generation of leaders. Networks allow us to pool the knowledge we have and add value to it."

For RISE, the challenge in coming years will be to build on the current model, improving it where necessary and making it sustainable. We agree with Prof. Soboyejo's vision that the secret to unlocking new knowledge for the benefit of Africa is to "get everyone to work together." As we all commit to share, harness, and diffuse scientific knowledge, the process of innovation becomes more powerful. We are confident that a sustained and expanded RISE can be a significant part of this innovation.

Phillip A. Griffiths chairs the Science Initiative Group. He is Professor of Mathematics Emeritus and a former Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, USA.

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Science Education Gets a Boost Across Africa

John Mwero, a RISE award recipient, is now a professor of engineering at the University of Nairobi.

The Regional Initiative in Science and Education aims to train a new generation of academics and professionals across the continent through a series of international educational ... Read more »