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Africa's scientific infrastructure gap

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Africa's scientific infrastructure gap

Sarah Wild

23 Apr 2018

4min min read
  • Research and development projects
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frican scientists are caught in a resources bind. High-tech science needs infrastructure, but that costs money – and scientific equipment is not high on African countries’ spending agenda. 

This puts scientists and researchers in a catch-22: if they want funding, they have to show the practical application of their work. To do this, they need equipment, which does not come cheap.

Those who are successful have to find ways to circumnavigate these resource blockages – something that competitors in better resourced locales do not have to do.

Take the case of space science and ionospheric research. 

High-frequency radio remains a communications staple of the African continent, and is an integral part of aviation and defence. But its accuracy depends on a charged layer of the Earth’s atmosphere, the ionosphere

This form of communication involves “bouncing” radio waves off the ionosphere, and allows people to send signals and information to the other side of the Earth, rather than relaying it via satellites.

But the ionosphere is not static: it distorts and changes with the vagaries of the sun. Space weather, and the ionosphere, depends on what the sun is doing, and the magnetised emissions it produces. What this means in practical terms that we need accurate models of the ionosphere to send these high-frequency communications to the correct locations. The same is true for GPS, as the satellite signal needs to travel through the ionosphere to get to Earth. 

John Bosco Habarulema, a space scientist at the South African National Space Agency (Sansa), has dedicated his career to understanding how the ionosphere behaves over Africa. His doctorate specifically looked at the Southern African Development Community. “[But] when I started expanding it over the entire African continent, then I found that some of the instrumentation [needed to take ionospheric measurements] was not there or was inadequate,” he says.

One way of characterising the ionosphere is through electron density. When an atom becomes charged, it loses electrons, which are negatively charged particles. Scientists are able to predict how signals will be distorted based on the density of the electrons in that part of the atmosphere.

An ionoson is the primary instrument for measuring the ionosphere, and the four ionosons in South Africa are the only continuously operating instruments of their kind on the continent, says Habarulema. There are also ionosons in other countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria, but they are often out of commission.  “That’s the main problem: we do not have data collecting infrastructure. At first, I was basing my research on the instruments that were in southern Africa, but when I started expanding it over the entire African continent, then I found that some of the instrumentation was not available,” he says.

Consequently, Habarulema had to find ways to work around this infrastructure gap.

He has been using satellites and signal receiving stations to supplement the lack of local data, and to model the behaviour of the ionosphere over the continent.

In 2016, he was awarded an American Geophysical Union award for his contribution to the field of space science. The union said at the time: “He is a role model for young African scientists and is very actively involved in supporting young scientists and improving the science infrastructure across the African continent.”

But that is what is often required of local scientists wanting to do necessary research on the African continent: they have to be exceptional. They have to find ways to work around challenges that their colleagues in more developed milieus do not. 

While space science and space weather might seem somewhat esoteric, there are other more well-known fields of science that are also languishing. For example, meteorology, which is fundamental in determining weather patterns and predictions, is another highly under-resourced discipline.

According to the World Bank, it would take US$1-billion to modernise the continent’s infrastructure. It claims that only 10 out of the continent’s 54 countries have adequate meteorological services and that fewer than 300 weather stations meet the World Meteorological Organisation’s observation standards.

Not being able to accurately determine the weather, both retrospectively and predicting into the future, has consequences. The continent is expected to be the worst hit by climate change, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But African scientists will struggle to make a contribution to climate modelling and discussions if they do not have data to work with. Governments, lacking their own locally relevant data, will battle to deal with current extreme weather events and predict future ones. Farmers take fewer risks and plant fewer seeds, out of fear that possible extreme weather – whether that is drought or flooding – could wipe out an entire crop and with it their investment.

However when it comes to scientific research, as Habarulema has shown, scientists are often able to make a plan. They collaborate with international partners, the access donor funding, although this comes with the tether of donor obligations and the danger of foreign-set science agendas. 

In short, these scientists have to become fundraisers, ambassadors and role models. 

Kelly Chibale, who has a research chair in drug discovery at the University of Cape Town, told Engineering News that scientific progress on the continent was hampered by a lack of investment in world-class scientific infrastructure. “Many science graduates in Africa are unemployed and the situation is getting worse. Those who can successfully opt to find science jobs overseas do so,” he said. There was a need to provide infrastructure and “fund talented African scientists based in Africa to success, rather than just survive”.

But as these examples show, while scientists can sometimes make a plan, those downstream can’t. 

Scientific infrastructure is not a collection of toys for people to tinker and play with. Because it is high-technology equipment, it is framed as being elitist. 

Africa needs evidence-based science, from farmers through to industrialists to governments An investment in equipment is an investment in generating evidence, not just upgrading scientists’ careers. 

(Main image: Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post via Getty Images)