The challenge for African science

24 January 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 8 min.
One of the <a href="https://ibro.org/ibro-simons-computational-neuroscience-imbizo-2019/" target="_blank" rel="noopener">2019 IBRO-SIMONS Computational Neuroscience Imbizo</a> participants researches the prefrontal cortex.
One of the 2019 IBRO-SIMONS Computational Neuroscience Imbizo participants researches the prefrontal cortex.

Panellists at the 2019 IBRO-SIMONS Computational Neuroscience Imbizo (isiCNI2019) debated and discussed the challenges faced by African scientists and science scholars, as well as the significant contributions Africa can make to the sciences in general.

The imbizo, which started in Cape Town on 7 January and concludes on 28 January, is an annual three-week summer school focusing on computational neuroscience and machine learning. It brings together international and local students under the tutelage of experts in the field, and is the only event of its kind on the continent.

This year’s school, co-hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT), aims to promote computational neuroscience in Africa using a combination of lectures and hands-on project work.

In the session facilitated by Christopher Currin, PhD candidate in the Raimondo Lab in the Department of Human Biology, and co-organiser of the imbizo, he hosted a four-strong panel. They included:

  • Professor Bruce Bassett from UCT’s Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics and head of the Cosmology Group at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) South Africa.
  • Professor Nicola Mulder, head of the Computational Biology division in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences and a member of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM). Mulder also leads H3ABioNet, a pan-African bioinformatics network.
  • Phumlani Khoza, associate lecturer and a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics.
  • Dr Joseph Raimondo, senior lecturer in the Division of Cell Biology, Department of Human Biology at UCT, and co-director of isiCNI2019.

Challenges facing African computation science

Currin quizzed the panellists about the state of computational research in South Africa, the challenges faced, and Africa’s contribution to science in general.

“We are behind but there is a huge passion to catch up, and catch up very fast,” Mulder responded.

Listing some of the challenges faced by those in the field, she named a lack of of basic computational infrastructure and access to the internet.

But she added that there are discussions taking place around the creation of an African open science platform, which she believes will drive data science and relevant institutes in Africa.

Raimondo pointed to the fact that students in Africa still face significant challenges in terms of accessing and benefiting from open-access data and open knowledge platforms in science.

“As a student, it’s really hard to know what’s important, what the important problems are to work on, and to feel motivated and encouraged,” he said.

“Relationships with other scientists are fundamental to success in science.”

Not knowing where to begin, or not having someone to motivate and guide then, raises the risk students feeling isolated and becoming unmotivated.

 

“African genetics can drive new therapeutics for other populations but also improve health in terms of precision medicine for African populations living all over the world.”

Responding to a question from the audience about the impact of apartheid on South African science, the panellists agreed that transformation remains a massive challenge.

While acknowledging the problems of race and class in tertiary institutions and his own school, Khoza expressed optimism. Young academics entering universities bring with them new ideas, he said, and with programmes such as the National Research Foundation’s “Promising young researchers” rating category, he believes South Africa is on track.

Bassett and Mulder, however, noted the significant difficulties faced by black students in South Africa in terms of access to quality education and adequate financing for postgraduate studies.

Other challenges named included funding for research, insufficient faculty positions and a lack of local and African collaboration.

But despite these hurdles, all the panellists agreed that Africa is making an enormous contribution.

The challenge for African science
Professor Bruce Bassett addresses the Imbizo.

Africa’s contributions

“‘The next Einstein will be African” is the informal mission statement of AIMS, and Bassett noted that by 2050, 40% of young people will be African.

“So, if you think that most innovation is driven by young people, Africa has a chance to be a global leader,” he said, adding that it remains essential for the African continent to take full advantage of its growing and youth population, and the exciting opportunities that represents.

“There is a huge opportunity for Africa to do that innovation for Africa rather than having people come in.”

For Mulder, there is no question that Africa has a major role to play in science.

“African genomics has an enormous amount to contribute [because] the continent has the greatest genetic diversity on earth.”

With the world’s population derived from African populations, everything there is to learn about African genetics has implications for the rest of the world. Most of the current treatment has been designed based on Caucasian populations and is therefore not as effective for other populations.

“African genetics can drive new therapeutics for other populations but also improve health in terms of precision medicine for African populations living all over the world,” she said.

Currently, less than 8% of the data in public databases is from African populations.

“So, we have a huge amount to offer in terms of increasing that, and contributing to medical knowledge in general.”

Beyond science is the practice thereof. Calling on a centuries-old African philosophy, Khoza said that through a sort of acculturation, there can be a move away from “organisational hierarchies” to collaborative organisational networks. Practising science in this way would do away with silos and place the scientists in the communities they’re meant to serve.

The challenge for African science
Panellists at the 2019 IBRO-SIMONS Computational Neuroscience Imbizo. They are (from left) Phumlani Khoza, Prof Bruce Bassett, Prof Nicola Mulder and Dr Joseph Raimondo.

Advice for aspiring scientists

Mulder believes the biggest thing lacking in science “is the innovative ideas”.

Her advice to aspiring students is to have the confidence to believe that they can indeed come up with new ideas. There is a need, she said, to “excite people to think more, to think wide” and to be curious.

Raimondo advised participants to be generous with their time and ideas, and to support one another.

For Khoza, pushing for interest groups and networks will go a long way in encouraging and enabling students, particularly those from previously disadvantaged groups, to experiment and pursue interests rather than just necessity.

In his closing remarks, Bassett encouraged the imbizo participants to pursue long-term collaborations with people with whom they enjoy working. Echoing Mulder, he called on the students to rid themselves of any inferiority complexes.

“There is a danger in thinking that coming from the ‘Third World’, you can’t do ‘First World’, leading science,” he said.

Aspiring scientists also should not expect people to give them permission “to do radical science”.

“No one is going to give you permission to go and cause trouble. You just have to go [and] do it. You have to say, ‘I’m going to force my way into the top tiers’,” he urged.

“Have confidence and do good science.”


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