“Scientific dependence” and “de-institutionalized research”

Indicators and factors that influence the daily scientific work in African research institutions

As soon as you enter the field of research collaborations with African and European participants, you will need a heuristic list or model of the factors that influence the scientific environments and opportunities of collaboration. The deeply entrenched history of Africa and Europe also in regard to science still influences any partnership model. While I will turn to European science systems and their links to African science systems later, in this blog entry I will give an overview of the factors that need to be considered when analyzing African systems of scientific research.

There are several causes that account for the current state of research possibilities in African countries today. The Beninoise philosopher Paulin Hountondji and the South African sociologist of science Johann Mouton are two researchers among others who have drafted lists with important factors.

Paulin Hountondji is mostly known for his critique of an Ethnophilosophy, a style of inquiry that attributes systematic thoughts and philosophies to collectives (1974). Hountondji has from early on defended an individual based model of science, in which he calls for the philosophers to take responsibility for their arguments in free and rigorous research and discourses instead of hiding behind “smokescreens of traditions”. For such form of research one not only needs the freedom of opinion and press but also the opportunities to pursue research on a high level. Therefore, Hountondji has listed the following factors in his article “Scientific Dependence in Africa Today” (1990). In this article he identified 13 factors that account for new dependencies. In many regards, the article is still a valid description of present conditions:

  1. All technical equipment comes from the North.
  2. The publishing houses and libraries lag, which deepens dependencies on Foreign documentation.
  3. African scholars, therefore, need to be “scientific tourists” to the North to participate in high quality research environments more than their travelling Western colleagues.
  4. Notorious brain drain remains an issue and a characteristic of the global science system.
  5. Although research institutes were established with external assistance, they remain foreign to their host societies by not responding to local objectives and needs.
  6. Research facilities are rather used for applied than for basic research. The pragmatic or utilitarian ideas behind it have been inherited and internalized from the colonizer.
  7. African authors tend to address interests of Western audiences in their publications.
  8. Research remains bound to the local context instead of participating in universal debates.
  9. Scientific research serves the economic exploitation of African resources.
  10. The focus on ethnoscience or “indigenous knowledge” is no favor to development because its objectification leaves it behind as disconnected and static bodies.
  11. African scientists remain bound to foreign languages to have access to global research. This doesn’t help to acquire universal knowledge and prevents scientists from cooperating with their own populations.
  12. There is a lack of communication between the scholars of the South.
  13. Mediocrity at African research institutions and universities and less rigorously applied standards by Western colleagues are preventing the scholars from developing excellence.

These indices were observed and spelled out by Hountondji before the background of a severe economic and social crisis in many African countries. Also in his position as a minister for culture and education in the early 1990s, Hountondji himself had to find solutions and strategies to overcome such obstacles. One major incentive of Hountondji is to free spaces for basic research and especially for original theory building that can direct research directions. This aligns with many current initiatives by African states to set national priority agendas that are not only ideals but are supposed to also bind foreign researchers in their quests.

Johann Mouton from the University of Stellenbosch is currently involved in a project analyzing exactly many of the above-mentioned indices among “Young scientists in Africa”. The midterm report starts with a similar systematic overview that is titled the “de-institutionalized science” and dates back to an overview by Mouton in 2008. Mouton identifies five characteristics of African research environments:

  1. Research institutions remain weak, including only fragile research centers, an irregular number of scientific journals, weak academies of sciences and similar institutions that are present in institutionalized settings to support science.
  2. A continuous and high reliance on external funding.
  3. Research is primarily based on individuals rather than on institutions.
  4. Declining numbers of doctoral programs leading to less scientific and academic workforce.
  5. A weak connection of science with their social environments.

Mouton and his colleagues identified a minimum of six factors that contribute to the current state, most of them connecting the African science systems to European and other actors: Firstly, colonial science and its legacy are still present. Secondly, political crisis and wars are preventing the continuous development of scientific systems. Thirdly, World Bank education politics of the 1990s and 2000s had a fatal effect for the maintenance of research universities and centers. Fourthly, international agencies are still shaping African science programs and priorities, among them international funders and research agencies. Their role is, however, somewhat ambivalent, as they also provide continuity in cases of crisis. Swiss and French research institutions are examples of such continuity. Fifthly, African governments are not investing enough into their national science systems. Finally, the leaving of many trained researchers still poses a threat to the establishment of research communities in African countries.

It is obvious that these factors are interdependent. The challenge remains to explain under which circumstances which factor weights in most and where interventions should take place. My current research focuses on the role of funders and international organizations that support programs to the benefit of research opportunities. At the same time, in my interviews with researchers from Africa and Europe I get to know different experiences with such dependencies and opportunities of external funding. It is also in such conversations that initiatives by individual African countries become more obvious. The Côte d’Ivoire, for example, has started a small grant program for national researchers in 2017 and thus steps up its commitment to its research environment. Burkina Faso, on the other hand, has drafted a national research strategy to define its priorities already in 2011. I will come back to these national initiatives African countries.