4 August 2014

Africa: Science Focus Urged at First U.S.-African Leaders Summit

Science and technology must be at the heart of the debate at the first-ever US-Africa Leaders Summit that starts today, policy experts argue, as they call for 100,000 new science graduate places in the United States for Africans over the next ten years.

Fifty African leaders have been invited to the three-day summit, convened by US President Barack Obama in Washington DC, United States.

The summit will address issues such as health, food security in a changing climate and women's role in creating prosperity.

At least US$900 million worth of business deals between US companies and African nations will be formally announced during the summit, according to the US Commerce Department.

But the summit's stated objective of "investing in the next generation" cannot be achieved if science and technology are ignored, according to Nkem Khumbah, joint coordinator of the capacity-building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)-Africa Initiative at the University of Michigan, United States. He suggests the summit needs to go further than private sector deals to significantly benefit Africa's development.

"If the US does not engage in science with Africa, Africa will certainly take longer - maybe more decades - to acquire the know-how to run the engines of its economies and society," Khumbah tells SciDev.Net.

"The US on the other hand, will lose out on trade and academic opportunities ... as the scientific and technological tools that African nations adopt to develop their nations may not be US-based," he adds. "The US, as global scientific leader, will not take advantage of the opportunity to lead on the scientific research opportunities that the African continent and society provide."

Melvin Foote, president of the Constituency for Africa, a network that builds support for Africa in the United States, is hoping to educate US policymakers and the administration during the summit, to harness the opportunities science and technology offers both Africa and the US.

"The United States is actively looking for ways to increase its impact for improving the quality of life in Africa," Foote tells SciDev.Net. "I can think of no better way to achieve this than to increase the capacity of Africans to support development on the ground in Africa, by supporting the training of scientists, engineers and other technical experts in Africa. This is something that the United States has a strategic advantage [in] and the ability to do."

During a speech at the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders last week (28 July), Obama said: "The security and prosperity and justice that we seek in the world cannot be achieved without a strong and prosperous and self-reliant Africa."

To achieve this self-reliance, both Khumbah and Foote, who also co-authored an opinion article on this topic in The New York Times last week, emphasise the need for a science-led development agenda in Africa, moving away from delivering aid to passive consumers and instead beginning to invest in scientific research and technological tools to solve development challenges confronting the continent.

Khumbah and Foote call for the United States to initiate a programme to recruit and train 100,000 African graduate students in STEM fields at US institutions over the next ten years while making it easier for US scientists to teach and do research in Africa.

This would, in turn, make US scientists more aware of Africa's development challenges and improve the standard of African teaching and research, they say.

"Science is the most vital ingredient needed for any sustainable development in Africa," Khumbah says. "Scientific competency will provide Africans with the know-how to be the builders of their own infrastructure, processors of their own natural and agricultural resources, address their own health and environmental challenges, and, in the process, build a middle class that is not dependent on government employment for sustainability and political stability."

Link to the opinion piece in The New York Times

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