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Thursday, December 28, 2017

We must invest more in research and innovation

On September 30th, this past Saturday, I attended the inaugural Annual Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium. The Faculty of Health Sciences of Aga Khan University organized the Symposium. 

Sixteen great research papers were presented and I was one of the judges. The topics ranged from nurses knowledge and practices on catheter associated urinary tract infections to female sexual dysfunction and fertility to improving facility-based quality of care during childbirth through clinical mentorship to drug discovery. The quality of research and the youthful exuberance of the researchers were impressive.

After an exhausting and inspiring day, I thought about of good research. I thought about the power of good research to drive the advancement of quality of life, as well spur socio-economic development. Think about what a dense research ecosystem, teeming with research active faculty, students and industry, working in collaboration could do for this country and the continent.

I am talking about research across multiple disciplines, and bringing together collaborators from university, research institutions and industry. And, working from diverse fields as literature and the arts; music and dance; pharmacogenomics; politics, law and government; journalism; plant genetics, agriculture, nutrition and urbanization; biodiversity environment, economics, anthropology and culture; geography, history and engineering

Our problems are man made and must be solved by world-class, research-led innovation. But the scale of our problems outstrips by far the output of relevant research on the continent. Africa produces just 1% of global research. In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty depressing.

However, according to the World Bank there is hope. Africa’s research output has doubled in the last decade. Most of Africa’s research focuses on agriculture, and health sciences. But sorely missing from the tally is research in the physical sciences, technology and engineering. This should worry institutions like the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation as well as the Vision 2030 Delivery Secretariat. 

While scientific productivity is on the surge we still have a long way to go. A ranking by Google Scholar Citations reveals that the top 100 scientists from Kenya’s institutions, together, have 77,635 citations, a measure the importance and quality of their research. To put this into perspective, the late US social scientist and Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon has over 307,000 citations.

Our research output is not great. All of us together, public and private academic and research institutions must step up investment and productivity in research. This will require public sector leadership in identifying key questions and priorities for research and innovation.

Such investment must include funding for graduate and postgraduate researchers. To achieve excellence in life sciences, technology and engineering, we must mobilize both public and private resources to build world-class research infrastructure, especially laboratories, science and technology parks. As exemplified through the Early-Career Health Researchers’ Symposium, we must invest in nurturing a new generation of research leaders.

Moreover, we must meet our development challenges by supporting innovation and the transformation through research excellence. This will also create new jobs, innovative businesses for millions.

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