Young African scientists drowning in a cauldron of obstacles
Shortage of funding and reluctant support threaten the future of science on the continent, study finds
Agnes Lutomiah, a doctoral student in science and technology, needs to present her work at an international conference at least once every year if she wants to be taken seriously as an academic or be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
But a lack of support from state-funded research institutions has seen the 32-year-old attend only one international workshop in the past three years.
“If it was not for funding shortages I should have attended between four and six international conferences or workshops by now, but there is no way that I can afford it from the travel allowance of only R25,000 a year.
“Going global is not just about having nice time, but about exposure and gaining confidence of presenting to a large audience. It’s a stepping stone before one can proceed to publishing,” said Lutomiah, who works as a junior researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (Crest) at Stellenbosch University. She is one of many young researchers on the African continent who are facing barriers researchers say could limit their career progress and threaten the production of future scientists.
A new book that was launched at Stellenbosch University recently, The Next Generation of Scientists in Africa, reveals the career aspirations and research performance of scientists younger than 40 across the continent.
Between April 2015 and last month, a team of researchers from the university analysed research records from more than 50 African countries and surveyed about 5,700 scientists, looking at various hurdles that young academics experienced.
They found that most African scientists worried about their inexperience when it came to funding applications, uncertainties about getting their research published in quality journals and work demands that kept them away from their own research. “Young researchers need help to identify appropriate journals, and they need constructive feedback that can help them improve their research papers, instead of outright rejections,” Prozesky said.
“It is important to keep in mind that many of Africa’s young scientists are first-generation academics,” one of the authors, Professor Heidi Prozesky, said. She said many scientists were not clear about the expectations and roles associated with their positions. Others identified a widespread demand for training and supportive mentoring among the early-career scientists.
Time management was also a huge issue for these scientists, as they were overburdened with teaching, supervision and administration, making it difficult to find time to focus on their own research.
Prozesky said it was clear after engaging with some scientists that they needed “constructive feedback to help improve their research papers instead of outright rejections”.
She said the latest research showed a need for senior academics and research managers to be more “approachable, less domineering and more trusting of their younger colleagues’ research aspirations”. More efficient admin systems in universities would also help lessen the load on early-career academics.
These researchers often did not meet funders’ formal requirements and lacked the tacit skills needed to succeed at grant writing. “As a result, they spend considerable chunks of time on writing proposals that turn out to be unsuccessful, which is very discouraging and further eats away at time they could have spent on research,” Prozesky said.
The book recommends new funding models, and calls for more training in proposal writing and more constructive feedback on unsuccessful proposals.
Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, which carried out the study, said countries needed to recognise that young scientists were at the heart of innovation and were instrumental to change and development in Africa. “Understanding and solving the career challenges that they face will enhance the future success of science systems across the continent,” he said.
He said working abroad for a period of time also helped scientists access future funding, develop new research skills and develop professionally.
“But due to family obligations, it is more difficult for some women to take advantage of international work opportunities,” he said.