skip to content

Vice-Chancellor's Office

 

Opening Remarks by Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, NEF Global Gathering, Dakar, Senegal, 9 March 2016 Plenary Panel 3, “Advancement of Science in Africa Through Education”

Mr Chairman, fellow panellists, Ladies and Gentlemen—

At the end of 2013, I met in Cambridge with Thierry Zomahoun and Arun Sharma.

When they invited me to be a Founding Patron for this Global Gathering, I didn’t have to think twice.

The University of Cambridge has been proudly involved with AIMS from the very beginning –it’s good to see Neil Turok and colleagues here.

But the idea of a meeting of minds, focused on enhancing the capacity of research institutions in Africa, resonated with my own views on how we can unleash the potential of African science. 

Now, over two years later, the convening power of this gathering has surpassed my expectations.

I’m honoured to have been invited.

“Shortage of STEM skills”

If I may, let me get right to the point.

All around the world, governments and businesses report an increasing shortage of skilled workers and researchers in STEM subjects. This shortage is felt most acutely in the developing world.

The figure quoted in our conference notes is staggering:

Africa needs 2.5 M engineers to address its most basic infrastructural challenges, from sanitation to sustainable cities.

And we might also wonder:

How many more doctors and nurses, how many more crop scientists and computer  programmers, does the continent require— not to develop its full potential, but sometimes even to cover its essential needs?

One apparently obvious solution has been to focus on recruiting more young women and men into university careers in science and technology.

But here, as elsewhere in the world, access to higher education remains the greatest sticking point.

Recent data from Senegal suggests that fewer than 5% of the country’s young people attend universities. The pattern is similar in most of West Africa.

In Ethiopia, around 13% of young people attend higher education –better than West Africa, but still far behind the 30% global average for university enrolment.

So, across the region, the challenge is tremendous.

But is this the wrong challenge to be addressing?

Is the real challenge a dilemma for cash strapped-governments: whether to invest in basic or in tertiary education?

The bad news for those governments is this: you have to do both.

I’m fortunate enough to work at an institution where I can turn to colleagues for information on almost any subject.

On the question of low levels of access to university, researchers from our Faculty of Education tell me this:

The way to increase the number of young people –women in particular—entering science in higher education is to focus on the early years.

It is in those early years that the inequalities of opportunity associated with gender, and with poverty, become most deeply embedded.

Let me share some of the findings of our Centre for Research on Equitable Access and Learning (REAL):

In Uganda, wealthy children are three times more likely than poorer children to have basic literacy and numeracy skills by the end of primary school.

Gender compounds this disparity: especially among the lowest income sector, boys are 30% more likely than girls to remain in education.

In Zambia girls are more than twice as likely as boys to drop out during primary school.  Among those who stay on until grade 5, 25% of the poorest boys will pass the national maths assessment –but only 16% of the poorest girls.

The effects of poverty and gender inequality on future attainment are insidious.

One obvious conclusion is this:

The most effective way to tackle inequality gaps in higher education is to address the inequality gaps in early learning.

“The role of universities”

But I also speak to you today as Vice-Chancellor of a research university, and so I have to ask:

Beyond the indispensable task of training educators, what might the role of universities in Africa be in developing that pipeline into science and research?

By a nice coincidence, an annual event called the Festival of Science started yesterday, back in Cambridge.

Over a period of two weeks, hundreds of university academics, students and volunteers will welcome children and teenagers, aged 5 to 16, and allow them to have direct, hands-on experiences in everything from veterinary medicine to robotics.

Last year we received 45,000 visitors in person.

We don’t know how many of the thousands of children that came along will enter careers in plant sciences or mathematics as a result of their exposure.

But anecdotal evidence, collected from teachers and parents, suggests that this early direct contact with science and scientists galvanises young people’s interest.

Indeed research from the University of York and the Wellcome Trust suggests that in the UK the decision to pursue science as a career is established between the ages of 9 to 11!

This outreach, run on a mostly voluntary basis, is one very simple way in which one university can contribute to meeting the future demand for skills in STEM subjects.

But universities have an even more fundamental role, far beyond sparking young people’s appetites for science.

Of course, universities offer today’s youth the knowledge and the skills they will need to enter the workforce.

And yet, who knows what problems a clinician or an engineer will be faced with in Nigeria or in Rwanda in twenty, thirty or forty years’ time? I certainly don't.

So we must educate our graduates not just for the jobs that exist today, but for the challenges that will exist in the future.

And we must go even further.

Universities –in Africa and elsewhere— must also be incubators of global citizens, and generators of  future leadership.

Scientific leadership, yes, but also civic leadership.

There is no greater task.

All universities –in Africa, and globally—must rise to this challenge.

Universities are also at the forefront of the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge.

Research allows universities to better serve the societies with which we are engaged.

Discoveries result in direct benefits, and these discoveries and innovations fuel economic growth.

We in Cambridge have delivered this as Europe’s largest cluster:

 The over 1600 companies developed with 60,000 jobs for the 600,000 people (less than 1% of the U.K. population) who live in the vicinity of our city create more than £13bn for the UK.

All of this is built on the know-how generated by the University, and exploited through partnership with business.

This is what every government that is impatient for societal benefit wants to hear.

However, this success comes with a real health warning to policy makers.

First—science is hard, and there is never a guarantee of success.

Second—it takes time.

In my own field of biomedicine it takes 17 years for a discovery at the laboratory bench to be translated to direct patient benefit.

There are few short cuts that have not been already tried.

Thirdly, supporting science that investigators wish to pursue is possibly more profitable in the long term than 'science agendas set by committee'.

It is such science that disproportionately produces real economic benefit.

And it takes real courage of policy makers to invest, because it is a shot in the dark.

The minister initiating such an effort will never see personal political benefit of the investment.

Indeed, it is likely that his political opponent will.

And if you are not prepared for long term investment then maybe you need to think hard as to why engage with this agenda at all.

I am optimistic for the future.

Yesterday we heard from Presidents, who have to allocate scarce resources, repeatedly stating that they are committed to deliver. 

But it will be hard for them too.

We are setting out on a difficult road that scientists and policy makers must travel together.

“The importance of partnership”

Now I must confess that, despite my enthusiasm for this Global Gathering, something has been nagging at me…

We call this the Next Einstein Forum.

A fine name, in honour of a fine scientist, who would surely have given his full support to what we are trying to achieve together.

But perhaps what Africa needs is not the next Einstein…

What we should be doing is trying to find the next Nelson Sewankambo, or the next Tumani Corrah.

My point is that perhaps we are too quick to invoke Einstein.

I say that, not because our aspirations are too low –but because they should be much higher.

They must revolve around a new generation of African scientists, working on African solutions to some of Africa’s most pressing issues.

They are embodied in some of those men and women I have met here, part of the first cohort of NEF fellows.

There is something else that troubles me…

I was reminded only a few days ago that, while Einstein was the sole author of the paper predicting gravitational waves, the recent scientific paper confirming the detection of those waves had more than 1000 authors from around the world.

So we evoke Einstein as a role model because of his groundbreaking ideas and his insatiable scientific curiosity.

In reality, however, we cannot continue to look upon the solitary genius, brilliant as he was, as a viable model for science today.

The challenges we face today –from food security to climate change, from security to sustainable energy—are global.

So, too, are the solutions we seek.

The complexity, the scale, and the urgency of the challenges demand that we work together and collaboration is the name of the game.

What African science needs is not a new Einstein –or even a hundred new Einsteins.

Africa needs scientists who are confident and able to harness the power of global partnerships.

African scientists need to respond to the imperative of strategic alliances.

African scientists need to set the agenda of closer collaboration between academia, policymakers and the private sector.

We are all here because we want to work alongside these scientists to contribute to that collective effort.

Since 2010, the Cambridge-Africa Programme has been engaging formally with partners across Sub-Saharan Africa to boost their research capacity.

Its flagship projects –like the Cambridge-Africa Partnership for Research Excellence, or CAPREx— are designed to match outstanding African researchers with committed mentors in Cambridge.

CAPREx Fellows in all areas of knowledge work alongside a Cambridge mentor on projects of their choice.

The selection process is competitive, and rigorous.

Under the academic leadership of Professor David Dunne, the programme has had a huge impact on the careers of these young African scientists.

They have enhanced their prospects for promotion, and have inserted themselves into an international network of scientific collaboration.

They gained the skills needed in the lab and published well, but also acquired indispensable tools required in research management.

These are men and women primed for scientific leadership.

It is a model that serves the African researchers’ countries of origin.

Crucially, to date it is a model that prevents any brain drain.

Of the 55 Cambridge-Africa Fellows that have passed through Cambridge since the programme was formally launched, almost all are now working in laboratories and universities in their home countries.

This Cambridge-Africa Programme is about allowing excellent African research to flourish.

We work closely with almost 100 African research partners –from Accra to Cape Town.

We work closely with our funding partners.

We will continue to work with existing –and are very open to new— partners to contribute solutions to the problems faced by people in Africa, and beyond.

Because we acknowledge that we need excellent African science as much as excellent African science needs us.

Let me finish by sharing a very short story that illustrates this:

Last year, the local maternity unit in Cambridge admitted a pregnant Ugandan woman.

She was in her 35th week, and presented some unusual symptoms, including an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

Obstetricians thought she might be suffering from a chronic disease of the heart, yet her ECG was normal.

She was only diagnosed correctly when the intensive care physician remembered talking to an obstetric anaesthetist who had just returned from Mulago Hospital’s maternity ward, in Kampala –one of Africa’s busiest.

There, the anaesthetist had learned that the most common presentation of pre-eclampsia in Uganda is pulmonary oedema leading to respiratory failure.

So the patient was correctly diagnosed, put on a respirator, and eventually recovered.

A life was saved in Cambridge that day because a team of medical researchers from Cambridge had worked alongside their Ugandan counterparts, and had learned something new.

Imagine how many lives will be saved in the future…

Imagine how many livelihoods will be improved –in Africa and around the world—on the back of the discoveries yet to be made by the NEF Fellows who are with us today, and by the African boys and girls who one day will follow in their footsteps.

I congratulate them, as I congratulate the organisers of this Global Gathering.

And I look forward to hearing what the panellists will say.

Thank you.