Discovering new knowledge in the African context is good for Africa, and for the world.
There are many levels on which the future of the world, not just the future of Africa, is being impacted by African research. Among them are:
- Africa represents the youngest (the median age of an African individual is 19.7 years vs 38.4 years for the median individual in the U.S.) and fastest-growing population in the world. The brain trust which is driven by these demographics makes intellectual investment an imperative, to harness and grow talent that is already a significant share of the global population and whose proportion is growing.
- While Africa carries about 20% of the global burden of disease, its scientific output represents less than 1% of the world’s share (according to one source).
- Africans represent the oldest and most diverse genome in the world. Studies of African disease and public health are critical not just to improve the mortality and morbidity of Africans themselves but also to shed light on disease that impacts Peoples of African origin who reside everywhere in the world — and indeed on all the Peoples of the world. After all, the entire human population, all seven billion of we Homo sapiens, has our collective and common origins in Africa. As a Newsweek cover story declared in 2018, “Black Genes Matter”.
- It is critical that Africa cultivates and nourishes the potential of its intelligentsia in Africa. The post-Colonial reality of the 54 countries of Africa, like developing countries worldwide, has been that the most qualified students and Early Career Researchers seek advanced training in the Global North, in many cases immigrating there. While this enriches the receiving countries, it drains the originating countries of their best talent. Contrary to the perception of many in the Global North, landing in the U.S. or Europe is not necessarily the preferred outcome for African intellectuals. Many people who have pursued education and/or research opportunities in the Global North are inclined to return to Africa. In order to compete for the return of such individuals, African research institutions must offer the resources and infrastructure that are often more readily available elsewhere in the world. “Losing” these students and researchers to countries in the Global North represents the loss of not just talent but also economic generation, intellectual property, mentorship, and modeling for future generations, in addition to the loss of focus on African genetic, technological, and health challenges.
- The burden of disease in Africa is rapidly shifting from communicable to noncommunicable causes. Of course the part of this equation that reflects a vast decline in mortality and morbidity from AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and neglected tropical diseases is good news. But it is also a sad story of the rapid increase in incidence in the noncommunicable diseases that have for a long time dominated death and poor health in the Global North — heart and other vascular disease, cancer, and diabetes — which are often driven by the same excesses that exist in societies that have been prosperous for longer: obesity, smoking, and lack of exercise. Thus, by investing in African science to address African disease, we invest in the parallel prevention and treatment of the same diseases everywhere in the world.
- Scientific research is a vital driver of economies. Without major investments in scientific research, particularly the kind of basic research that is often not considered cost-effective for private enterprises such as pharmaceutical and biotech firms, African economies will be at a perpetual competitive economic disadvantage.
- Because of the nature of global pandemics and modern mobility, no one is safe from COVID-19 (and whatever pandemics are to come next) until everyone is safe. Scientific and public health research that is bespoke to the many traditions and cultures of Africa is mandatory not just to protect the health of Africans but also to protect world health.
- Given Africa’s Colonial history, in the rearview mirror since just the 1960s, Africa must produce a critical mass of individuals whose primary interest is the wellbeing of Africa and Africans themselves. More recently, there is a gathering debate around the issue of decolonizing science: pushing for equity and equitable North/South partnerships as well as South/South partnerships that benefit the people, scientists, communities, and economies of Africa. There is a shameful history of exploitation of the natural and human resources of Africa by other countries. Only by taking their fate into their own hands can Africans be effective guardians of their own health and wellbeing.
This article was first published by ACS Omega (CC-BY)