Challenges for African science
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CTA. 1991. Challenges for African science. Spore 31. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Professor Thomas Odhiambo is Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. Among other international awards, in 1987 he shared with President Abdou Diouf of Senegal the First Hunger Prize for the Sustainable...
Professor Thomas Odhiambo is Director of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya. Among other international awards, in 1987 he shared with President Abdou Diouf of Senegal the First Hunger Prize for the Sustainable End of Hunger. Professor Odhiambo is also Founding Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences, African Academy of Sciences and Kenyan National Academy of Sciences. The essence of scientific research and new advances into the frontier areas of knowledge is that one depends on a common pool of knowledge from which one tries to chart new roads to scientific progress through theoretical thinking, critical study, observation, experimentation and analysis. The sense of isolation and the climate of separateness, is inimical to this spirit of creative science and innovative technology. The sense of sharing, so pronounced in African social communication, is obligatory for a thriving scientific community. Consequently, the balkanization of Africa which began with the Berlin Conference in 1884 has resulted in some undesirable side-effects. Among the most crucial of these is the compartmentalization of what should have become a coherent African scientific community into small, fragile, unviable national scientific enclaves. These are cut off from other neighbouring enclaves by high immigration walls. Also by the predominant North-South orientation of telecommunications and transportation (instead of a horizontal communication and transportation network), and the erection of language-cultural barriers that are being even more rigidly enforced by Africans themselves than by the original European colonizers. The African scientist, in consequence, confronts at least three major responsibilities in his working environment in Africa. First, he has the philosophical responsibility for putting into practice the art of scientific discovery. This consists of initially asking the critical question, and then objectively bringing to bear the craft of problem-solving to this critical question. He then has to see how this new information fits into the general scaffolding of the universal knowledge pyramid. In this task, there is only one general yardstick for comparison, that of excellence. Second, the African scientist has the attitudinal responsibility for undertaking basic, fundamental research in those areas of relevance to Africa, on specific issues which are a matter of long-term questioning by Africans, and on topics for which other scientific communities show little concern. For instance, malaria causes about one million deaths among children in Africa each year; and when you add other disease caused by parasitic protozoans and helminths, such as leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, amoebiasis, leprosy, river blindness, filariasis, and bilharzia, we probably witness some three million deaths a year from these parasitic diseases alone. Yet, there is great disparity in our scientific knowledge, including the detailed biology, biochemistry, molecular biology and epidemiology, of infections caused by bacteria and viruses, where a vast mountain of information is available, compared to our meagre knowledge of the parasitic disease caused by protozoans and helminths, most of them endemic in Africa and other tropical regions. It is only recently that there has occurred 'the scientific rediscovery of parasitic protozoans and helminths' by the world scientific community. The African scientific community should surely provide world leadership in this area, yet there are less than ten full-time malariologists in the whole continent and less than that number in other equally important fields (leishmaniasis, filariasis, leprosy, etc). In refocussing our concerns on this task, we should consider only one yardstick, that of relevance and comparative advantage. Third, the African scientist has the social responsibility of once again integrating science into Africa's cultural framework. Art is only one element of civilization, and science is the other vital element. A country cannot remain competitive in the long term without science. Yet, Africa has tried to eschew science in its development thinking over the last two centuries. In rehabilitating the pivotal role of science in Africa's cultural and social development, we should be conscious of only one yardstick, that of creating a long range vision for Africa, in which cultural, social, and economic development is science-led. We must, nevertheless, be sensitive to the other attributes of development of 'the whole man', namely, communal and family solidarity, ethical coherence, and psychic peace. The potential of the African scientists' responsibilities can only be fully realized if the geopolitical environment in the continent is enabling, supportive and concerned. The resulting interface between science and geopolitics is critical. It is in the goal of improving the well-being of the African peoples that both the scientific community and the geopolitical leadership find common cause. In this respect, it is a public error to think of scientists in their public arena as pursuing interests alien to those being pursued by the government leaders in their development arena. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CTA. Corrections Misunderstanding of the French text resulted in errors in translation in 'Speakers Corner' in Spore 28. The second paragraph should have read 'There has been a simultaneous proliferation of small-scale irrigated areas run on market gardening principles by peasant farmers and town-dwellers who have returned to the land'. Also, 'Malaysia produces cocoa at less cost than Africa', not more cocoa than Africa. We regret the errors and apologise to M. Jacques Giri, the author of 'Speakers Corner' in Spore 28.
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