Fund African research and consider progress studies
Saturday, December 14, 2019
Fund African research and consider progress studies

The New Times – Rwanda

By: Gitura Mwaura

The proposal to introduce a new discipline of “Progress Studies” is worth consideration.

It seeks to study known factors that determine progress, as manifests in transformed lives and raised standards of living, and investigate whether we can deliberately engineer conditions that enable it to advance human development.

Its authors describe progress as the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past centuries.

They lament lack of broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. (See “We need a Science of Progress” in The Atlantic)

Thus, the idea of Progress Studies to study the successful people, organisations, institutions, policies, and cultures that have arisen to date and attempt to concoct policies and prescriptions that would help improve our ability to generate useful progress in the future.

The proposal’s intention is similar to the just-concluded Kusi Ideas Festival. One of its aims is “to create a 'pan-African ideas transaction market’ to capitalise on the opportunities and innovations available for Africa to win in the 21st Century in a global context.”

The only difference is the festival was a two-day forum. However, the proposed discipline seeks to dig deep and investigate how we can effectively tweak the systems that surround us today to ensure progress.

The authors, however, note that while science generates much of our prosperity, research that drives it has been, and continues, to be under-invested the world over.

It is even more underfunded in Africa, ensuring the continent’s low share of 3.2 per cent of the world's scientific output.

One of the reasons for this is that many African countries heavily depend on international support, mainly agencies based in Europe, the United States and China. They have created own funding system, of which only about 2 per cent of scientists in the continent receive million-dollar grants.

This is in a situation where half of scientists in Africa receive no funding for their research, according to the report The Next Generation of Scientists in Africa.

The big grants, however, tend to be in fields favoured by the foreign funders, such as agriculture and health sciences. Other preferred fields of funding include natural and social sciences.

Great scientific strides have been gained in these fields. But, clearly, Africa needs more funding, including in more areas of scientific research.

It has been suggested that possible funding mechanisms, including the foreign funders and the corporate world, are usually low or not optimal, in part because they do not focus enough on research autonomy and risk-taking even by business entities.

Around 95 per cent of papers funded by the major grant-makers from outside Africa are a product of partnerships, which may compromise autonomy.

On the other hand, corporate funding is largely missing. This is an area the Kusi ideas Festival might have discussed but should be focused on in such future fora given the corporate sponsorships they are able to muster.

The Festival observed progress Africa has made thus far, noting that the world’s future is very African. Though Africa is at a crossroads, what it does in the years ahead could leave it a big winner - or with the scars of a few half-won victories.

We believe it will win, the organisers wrote in the festival brochure. The continent will change more in the next 100 years than it did in the previous 1,000, they added.

I believe this will be so. But the road will be long. As the movers of Progress Studies noted, we still need a lot of progress.

We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

The success of Progress Studies, they say, will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions.

Somebody should introduce the discipline in our research institutions.