United nations: taking countries forward with science and technology

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Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of the Republic of Mauritius, reveals how her nation’s fortunes, and those of continental Africa, can improve through science and technology

I am deeply passionate about the role that scientific and technological innovation can and will play in the development of our world. It is an issue at the very heart of my Presidency in Mauritius as it is my belief that only through science, technology and advanced research can we move to become a higher-income, prosperous country for benefit of our people.

It is a belief I also share for our entire African continent and why I continue to advocate for increase attention and funding toward African scientists, researchers and engineers. Only through science and research can we both tackle the challenges we face and unlock our true potential of Africa and the wider world.

Only through science and research can we protect and enhance our natural biodiversity; fight the risks of climate change; increase internet connectivity; utilise renewable energies; looking after our oceans. And so much more. Only through science, technology, engineering and mathematics can we, as one global community, bridge the gap between north and south and increase the prosperity of our people.

Africa, despite its impressive recent economic growth, remains burdened by a deeply rooted scientific deficit. As an academic, I lament that while 12% of the global population live across our beautiful continent, it accounts for less than 1% of the world’s research output.

No African nation was among the top 20 countries filing for patent applications in 2013. No African university appears in the top 100s of overall global rankings or the Nature Index, which tracks the natural sciences research of more than 8,000 institutions.

Your own Royal Academy of Engineering did an excellent job in the 2013 Report looking at capacity in the African Engineering sectors and highlighting the critical issues. Sadly, for us who have spent our lives devoted to the sector, the findings were all too familiar. Engineers, just like other scientific minded students across our continent, were being held back by poorly funded academic institutions, out of date facilities and inadequate supporting systems linking them to professional careers.

For those who did make it and benefitted from the best educational opportunities available, they were being drawn to other parts of the world for greater financial and professional recognition and opportunity.

Things are changing and across our continent we now have exciting scientific hubs and academic groups increasingly producing world-class level research.

A rising star I know well in the fields of Organic Chemistry, Professor Kelly Chibale, announced last month the discovery of a new compound that could offer protection against all forms of malaria, the first compound of its sort to be developed in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

South Africa as a whole was in June lauded as a global rising star by the Nature Index, its universities having increased publications in high-quality journals by 40% in the past four years, driven by its strength in physical sciences, especially astronomy. The Square Kilometre Array, which begins construction in South Africa and Australia in 2018, will be the world’s largest radio telescope once completed.

Other large-scale initiatives such as those run by the African Academy of Sciences and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa launched last year, are making a real difference to giving our future scientific leaders the tools they need.

I am also well aware of the excellent work of the Royal Academy of Engineering, bringing profile and prestige to our young innovators with the Africa Prize and helping to administer significant funding for critical research with the UK’s Newton Fund. Moreover, I know of all the advisory work that your institution conducts with many other governmental and non-governmental initiatives that are helping our continent move forward.

While I strongly believe that Africa must look to itself for the answers to the challenges it faces, and look to our own governments, industry and philanthropists to support the development in science and technology, there is a critical role for high-quality international partnerships.

That is where the Royal Academy of Engineering, a distinguished and highly acclaimed network, can play such a valuable role. Advising, collaborating and connecting. I congratulate you on this work and urge you – and your funders – to please keep it up.

Her Excellency Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, G.C.S.K., C.S.K., PhD, DSc, President of the Republic of Mauritius – and Vice Chairman of Planet Earth Institute – was speaking at the launch of the Engineering a Better World Conference of the Royal Academy of Engineering

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