The case for empowering young and emerging researchers
esearch has long been recognised as essential to the development of a nation. Governments and communities must engage in ways to promote both activities, which is made possible through adequate research funding and empowering young and emerging researchers (YER) with diverse methodologies and skills. They are an important group that will drive development, particularly in developing countries.
In an effort to increase their research contributions locally and internationally, universities are encouraged to establish an office for research and development and a school of graduate program with specialised professionals in the fields of education, agriculture, engineering and Information Technology, as well as other interdisciplinary areas of study. However, without resources such as well-equipped laboratories and demonstration farms, these efforts will be counterproductive or be limited to social studies.
Capacity building of young researchers through on-the-job trainings is essential. A workshop on food security and environmental issues that was hosted by the United Nations University and the Japanese government in 2017 is one example of a productive development initiative. In these trainings, the importance of the use of case studies under the guidance of experienced experts to provide relevant, hands-on knowledge and skills to help the trainees develop and implement research-guided action plans for their respective countries, is considered of high importance. Most of these trainings are usually done within Africa.
Some African researchers had opportunities to be trained overseas under the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Michigan State University (BHEARD) or other university-funded and scholarship programmes. Their contributions in development have been well-documented. For instance, Ghanaian entrepreneur and innovator Paul-Miki Akpablie, who received the Davis scholarship at Colorado College in the US, developed the Kadi long-lasting portable storage battery that can be charged with solar power. He went on to establish and head up the Kadi Energy Company in Ghana, which focuses on affordable and reliable energy solutions for the region.
Other ways of uplifting Africa's brightest and supporting scientific advancement include platforms that recognise and raise the profiles of young and emerging researchers regionally and globally. Platforms such as the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) have been established to promote research-based solutions to address developmental challenges in Africa. And in February this year, three Johnson & Johnson African Innovation Challenge winners shared the impact of their consumer health solutions at the Next Einstein Forum. Challenge winners received funding and mentorship from scientists, engineers and researchers from the company's Research & Development division.
Currently, the number of graduates trained in various areas and specialisations are limited but growing. Some are trained within their respective countries, while others obtained their degrees abroad. Bringing them together is an added value to development efforts. If well-guided and supported, such a pool of unique talents may present an opportunity for effective institutional reforms, improved coordination for networking between researchers and other professionals, and possibly build trust between researchers and the local communities. Continuous participation of young and emerging research-minded professionals in leadership trainings and related activities may also help boost their self-confidence and build their profile. But they cannot work and serve their communities better without external support.
What forms should this support take?
One of the best ways to pave the path for young and emerging researchers in academia is to provide them with continuous training and opportunities geared towards helping them to better understand academic networking. This has an impact on both social and professional growth. Such initiatives work well when they are equipped with effective skills and personal confidence in building and growing their professional relationships. Providing adequate time and resources to uncover valuable knowledge and possibilities for progress through participatory youth research is very important. At this end, their active participation in public communication is also pivotal to broaden their network and even strengthen ties between young researchers from different countries.
Similar invaluable support programs have been initiated and implemented in many African countries. In South Sudan, some development partners developed support programs to promote participatory action research to engage young women and men as key actors in developing the nation. Also on offer are post-graduate scholarships based in Africa; training programmes that are specifically aimed at addressing a country's challenges; initiatives that cultivate social entrepreneurship among young professionals; and activities that empower young leaders. In addition to these efforts, improving the quality of research conducted by African researchers is another important consideration that has been frequently highlighted.
Besides leadership training and skills empowerment, there is also a need to establish a network or database that will strengthen scholarly publishing under peer review standards (e.g establishment of a specialised network to boost research work in a particular area) or encourage innovation and knowledge sharing in a multidisciplinary fashion. The success stories of young and emerging researchers should also be shared and celebrated on social and professional networks. If early-stage researchers are supported and promoted as pillars and leaders of future research, there is hope that many of them will have better options to further their careers in science and research. The recently launched Momentum program by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, for example, invests in young researchers and scientists to help them successfully transition from a postdoctoral level to a more advanced professional role.
Such efforts, coupled with material and financial support geared towards improvement in education and other important interrelated sectors (e.g. health) will strongly improve research output. A focus on research output has the potential to influence not only teaching methods and the learning environment but also guide policy makers to make better and objective decisions related to policy execution.
Teaching is a challenging and rewarding profession for young and emerging researchers, and it requires more investment. Likewise, researchers' desire to grow professionally in academia requires passion and dedication to serve the current generation and generations to come. I’m hopeful that more organisations and networks will make a concerted effort to support young and emerging African researchers. The continent, and the world, will be richer for it.
(Main image: Flickr/CIAT)