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Research and Innovation in Africa – A briefing paper

I recently wrote a short paper to present the recent advances and trends in the scientific and technical research output in African countries. The report highlights various aspects of the research landscape such the productivity and the impact of scientific output.

The report highlights productivity and impact of the African continent’s research community. Importantly, it demonstrates the power of using comparable indicators and suitable benchmarking for realistic and useful monitoring.

Africa itself faces many challenges, including lack of infrastructure, geographic and institutional isolation and a lack of investment in skills development and research. Yet its research output continues to grow exponentially. With this growth, come huge disparities between countries and regions.

These differences are influenced by many factors, including country’s research infrastructure and network, local funding and finance frameworks and policies supporting education and research. Factors that positively influence research and innovation in higher performing countries include:

• Strong, functioning national research funding and subsidy systems

• National science, technology and innovation policies and programmes

• Networks such as university-industry linkages and researcher collaboration

• The existence of national systems of innovation including research laboratories, higher education institutions, and industrial research agencies.

• Many African organisations and institutions still lack the resources and tools to collate and analyse data to benchmark and track research and innovation performance. The new STISA 2024 sets the scene for the next seven years.

Interesting findings

Output Research: output of research publications from Africa has more than doubled in the past 10 years (number of papers multiplied by 2.25). While the overall output of research publications from Africa has more than doubled in the past 10 years between 2007 and 2016, the two most prolific regions are still Northern and Southern Africa accounting for around 71% of African output between them while the Eastern, Middle and Western regions make up the remaining 29%. Within the regions there are also great differences (Fig. 3), for example the most prolific publishing nation is South Africa which has published 80,887 research papers in the 5-years between 2012 and 2016 representing over 96% of the Southern region’s output with the second placed regional peer, Botswana ranking in 19th position in all Africa with just 1,659 papers in the same period. However, Northern African countries show far less intra-regional difference, 4 of them ranking in the top 6 by output.  

Productivity per capita: One of the key recommendations in many of Africa’s national strategic plans is to harness the potential of the region’s youth, its women and its underprivileged. Africa’s greatest resource is its people and with a population of more than 1 billion, the African continent has plenty of potential human capital so the more people engaged in research, development and innovation activities the more knowledge will be produced. The research productivity per person is dominated by 3 regions; the Southern and Northern regions which have developed diverse research infrastructures and the Indian Ocean Islands which have relatively high funding and small populations. The STISA-2024 plan calls for a minimum 1% GDP expenditure on R&D the funding in order to stimulate long term research productivity as well as establishing comparable benchmarks and their monitoring and evaluation. In Gambia, the country’s research community has published 814 papers per US $ billion GDP and 3 other West African countries also exhibit a high research output when normalized for national economic indicators.

Africa’s greatest resource is its people and with a population of more than 1 billion, the African continent has plenty of potential human capital so the more people engaged in research, development and innovation activities the more knowledge will be produced.

Impact: One of the most effective ways of determining the impact of large quantities of research outputs is to measure the proportion that are included in the top 10% as measured by citations within the same field. A subset of papers with an average impact distribution would expect 10% of the papers to be cited in the top 10% and therefore an excess of that value indicates research with above world average impact. Over the latest 5-year period (2012-2016), 16 African countries* exceeded this proportion. Of the 1,356 papers published by researchers in The Gambia, 226 were cited in the top 10% in their respective fields. It is interesting to note the high level of international collaboration of researchers in these countries indicating these authors were part of larger study groups.. Note also the lack of countries from the high producing Northern and Southern regions both of which typically exhibit lower international collaboration rates as they have developed larger local research networks to draw on.

Innovation: Innovation has been described in various ways and although there is no easy way to measure it, there are some useful indicators that inform us of the commercial intent of the research community. Protecting intellectual property such as patents and trademarks are indicators of innovative economic activity where a trademark is a word or symbol used to identify a product and a patent is used to protect an invention from being copied by others. It may also be assumed that where industry and academia collaborate on a research project, the result is intended to contribute towards economic advancement; therefore journal articles published by authors representing both academic and corporate institutions are also seen as indicators of innovation. 16 African countries patented new inventions in the most recent 5-year period between 2012 and 2016. South Africa’s big companies led the patent tables followed by the Northern countries.

Also, this report demonstrates the need of using comparable indicators and suitable benchmarking for realistic and useful monitoring.

Link to download the full report.

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