I read an article titled “Islam and Science the road to renewal” in the latest issue of the Economist (January 26th-Fembruary 1st 2013) and it made me think about the state of science in East Africa and more so in Kenya. The article describes the state of science in Arab countries and how it has been relegated to the backbench for a long time since religion does not agree with scientific theory and thinking. The article provides a nice background of science in the Islamic world in the dark ages when it was thriving “ Between the 8th and 13th centuries, while Europe stumbled through the dark ages, science thrived in Muslim lands…In the ninth century Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabry”. The article goes on and gives some of the statistics of funding towards research and development (which of course includes science) in a few countries. In 2005, 57 countries in The Organization of the Islamic Conference spent 0.81% of GDP on research and development; the US spent 2.9% and Israel 4.4%. Now leaders are realizing the economic value of scientific research, at present Qatar is bumping up research investment from 0.8% to 2.8%. Universities in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are seeking professors from the USA, of course willing to commit large salaries to get the best of them.
These statistics made me think about East African countries and what this means for the future of our country and for our development. I don’t have the numbers for research investment in Kenya but I know that universities cannot afford to provide internal research funding to their researchers. Additionally, there is no government kitty that funds science research that scientists can apply to. I know many scientists have to obtain external funding from international sources competing with the whole worldwide or the occasional local foreign embassy for funding.
Unfortunately, the conversation has not even begun. How do you develop a country when basic statistics and records are not available? For instance, how does one begin to address a nation’s problems when the data of annual rainfall and corresponding harvest is not available through local institutions (i.e. e universities) and only have to rely on an International Organization for such a database? The point is that we need “African solutions to African problems” and if so then we need have to have local researchers involved, collecting long-term data that would help us address the problems we are facing.
To do that there has to be financial support from the government, and this support should be for researchers to apply competitively and receive awards based on scholarly merit as opposed to “do you know anybody”. It might not be top of the agenda in comparison to healthcare and provision of basic education but I would like to hear politicians talk about building our research and development, building our knowledge base consequently finding local solutions to local problems. For how long shall we wait for the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to collect data on malaria? Of course they are doing an excellent job but we can increase their efficacy by contributing with our own data and not waiting to be hired as consultants to get huge salaries. For how long shall we wait for CDC (Centers for Disease and Control) in Nairobi to collect data on HIV aids and treatment? How about the various cancers and their variations that occur only in the region not common elsewhere who will do that for us? We have to start with collecting our own data (just recording what we observe) then get on to laboratory work (i.e. make hypothesis based on observed trends). Our government needs to step up and allocate an annual substantial budget to research and development.
My goal is start the conversation (the first step), if you have thoughts on this please share your thoughts and keep the discussion going.