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AFRICA lags behind badly when it comes to research capacity, particularly if North Africa is excluded. A recent World Bank report showed that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output, despite having 12% of the world’s population.
But even this represents some progress. Between 2003 and 2012 the region more than doubled its yearly research output, raising its share of global research from 0.44% to 0.72% over the period.
When considered by the number of PhD researchers per million of the population, North Africa is by far in the lead, taking up the top three places.
It’s partly a question of the opportunity cost of higher education. The estimated cost of a doctoral degree is $50,000, enough to finance five classrooms that would benefit about 400 pupils.
Considering the youth bulge that most African governments are facing, they often choose to direct their funding for education more to the lower levels.
In most public research institutes, the governments only cover operational costs and salaries; the research itself is financed through collaborations. That means that most PhD level research struggles to find funding.
A very large share of the region’s research is a result of collaboration with international partners—nearly 80% in southern Africa (excluding South Africa at 45%) and 70% in East Africa.
While there are benefits to be had for both partners, it suggests a lack of internal capacity to produce quality research and attain the so-called gold-standard of independent and transparently-funded research.
The World Bank study showed that collaborations between academics and business organisations account for only a small percentage of regional research output, despite their potential for a greater transfer of knowledge, and as a sign of future funding channels. They have however been growing: southern Africa published only 16 co-authored articles in 2003, but 74 in 2012.