African science needs more leaders: Here’s how to develop them

22Jun 2020
The Guardian
African science needs more leaders: Here’s how to develop them

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, 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 coordinated by Future Africa.

This programme is 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. It aims 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, will 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 depends 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 that 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. That’s because they have a greater multiplying effect: they are equipped to inspire and lead the transformation of their environment.

Our hope is that an increased focus on science leadership development will provide support and networks for young African researchers who feel isolated and unsure of how to become the scientific leaders the continent so urgently needs.

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