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Research in sub-Saharan Africa must improve, says report

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Sub-Saharan Africa’s striking economic growth in recent years is reflected in its growing capacity for research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the 'STEM' fields. However, according to a report from the World Bank and Elsevier, research in key areas remains insufficient to meet the needs of the rapidly modernising continent.

'Research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has doubled in Africa over the past decade and vastly improved in quality, but is still not sufficient to fuel its fast-growing economies,' said Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice president for Africa. 'We need to increase cutting-edge, industry-driven research capacity so that African economies become more competitive, but also to foster greater collaboration across countries as they seek common, evidence-based solutions to today’s most pressing development challenges.'
 
According to the report, A Decade of Development in Sub-Saharan African Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Research, Africa’s share of global research output is less than one per cent – compared to its 12 per cent share of the world’s population.

'Smartly targeted investments in higher education and science-based research can be absolutely transformational as economies evolve,' added Claudia Costin, senior director for education at the World Bank. 'We are committed to supporting African countries as they reshape their higher education systems to deliver the knowledge and expertise that is in such great demand on the continent today.'
 
Recent growth in Africa’s research has been overwhelmingly driven by advances in research capacity in the health sciences, which today accounts for more than 45 percent of all research in Africa, the report notes.  Research in the physical sciences and STEM-related fields makes up only 29 per cent of all research in the region, when South Africa is excluded.
 
The report also finds that Africa’s research capacity is fragmented across the region, with little sub-regional collaboration. Intra-African collaboration (without a South African or international collaborator) comprises less than three percent of total research in three sub-regions – east Africa, west and central Africa, and southern Africa. Further, the report found little knowledge transfer and collaboration between African academics and the corporate sector, as measured by corporate downloads of and patent citations to African academic research, especially for STEM disciplines.
 
Despite these challenges, another co-author of the report, George Lan, analytical product manager at Elsevier, noted the importance and benefits of international collaboration in driving growth in Africa’s research output.
 
'For the majority of the region’s international collaboration partners, the relative citation impact of such collaborations is actually higher than each partner’s own citation impact, suggesting that the collaboration is a win-win situation,' he said.