Of Hopes and Struggles: How Young African Scientists Experience Working Conditions in Academia (A Review of The Next Generation of Scientists in Africa)

Susanne Koch

May 18, 2020 | Reviews

On 3rd March 2020, the Backchannels editorial team asked on Twitter: “What books authored by Global South academics should the #STS community be reading right now?” I immediately responded to them that “The next generation of scientists in Africa” should be on the list. The editors welcomed my suggestion, and I offered to submit a review until May.  Shortly after our communication, COVID-19 spread worldwide at tremendous speed, causing a pandemic of unprecedented scale and changing our lives drastically. When my calendar told me the review is due, I was unsure whether it still feels right to say that STS scholars should be reading the book right now. My answer is: Not necessarily right now, but when the situation allows for delving into a 204-pages book on conditions of doing science in Africa – conditions which are likely to become even more challenging due to the crisis. 

“The next generation of scientists in Africa” (African Minds, 2018) shifts the spotlight on scholars who have hardly been covered by STS literature. Co-edited by Catherine Beaudry (École Polytechnique de Montréal, Canada), Johann Mouton and Heidi Prozesky (Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, South Africa), the book presents the results of a four-year study on what influences research performance and the development of young scientists in Africa. Its particular strength lies in the rich empirical data it presents and the deep insights these offers. They have been generated by bibliometric analyses, a web-based survey and 259 interviews with scholars from over 50 African countries. The latter impressively illustrate what it means to enter and operate in science systems that still struggle with “a legacy of neglect” (p. 3).  The book consists of four broad parts: Part I sketches the state of science in Africa; Part II highlights the challenges faced by young scientists in Africa; Part III focuses on how these affect research performance; and Part IV presents conclusions and recommendations. 

The first part sets the scene by putting science on the African continent in a historical and global context. In the first chapter, Johann Mouton highlights how colonial rule, structural adjustment policies and economic decline have shaped science systems of African countries and led to a de-institutionalization of African research institutions during the twentieth century. Since the turn of the millennium, however, there are signs of a rising tide, most notably indicated by a growing publication output and citation impacts as well as increasing international collaboration of African scholars. The bibliometric findings presented in chapter two substantiate the new narrative of ‘African science rising’, yet the authors warn against equating these positive trends with a genuine and sustainable strengthening of African science systems. Using funding acknowledgments as a new source of scientometric data, the authors of chapter three, all affiliated with the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) in Leiden (Netherlands), demonstrate that “the whole production of the continent is characterized by the presence of non-African funders” (p. 42). How the reliance on foreign funders limits the scope of academic self-determination, especially of early-career-scholars, is shown in the following.  

Part Two can be considered the core of the book. It is not only the largest but, in my view, also the richest section, providing in-depth insights on how young African scientists experience working conditions in academia. After an introductory chapter with details on demographics, educational backgrounds and employment patterns of the study participants, full chapters are devoted to how they perceive and deal with challenges such as the chronic lack of funding, deficient mentoring support and limited mobility. The authors give much space to interview excerpts in these chapters, and this is what makes them particularly worth reading. It makes a difference whether structural constraints are looked at from a macro-perspective, or whether individuals put in words what they personally mean for them and their scientific work. What struck me is how strongly the narratives reflect a deeply internalized feeling of dependence: For young African scientists, collaboration with and research stays in the Global North appear essential for making a career in science, not only as they provide access to funding, but also as they lift their status as knowers: “We who have studied abroad, we are considered as people who have a great intellectual background”, a female scientist from West Africa is quoted, “I play the role of leader because of that” (cited on p. 107). 

How structural conditions shape the publication performance of young scientists is discussed in Part III. As in previous chapters, the latent deflation of the ‘local’ clearly comes across, for instance when a South African scholar reports she was explicitly advised not to publish in a South African journal “because it will look bad” (cited on p. 138). The authors present various accounts of this sort. In my reading, they hint at the fact that the extraversion of young scientists in Africa is not solely a consequence of structural constraints – although it is a crucial underlying cause – but also of an academic culture that continues to rank Northern over Southern science. Unfortunately, the authors do not take this aspect up much further. For me, this is a missed opportunity as they would have had rich material at hand. 

In the recommendations presented in Part IV, the editors give concrete advice on how to improve structural conditions for emerging researchers, for instance, by providing more earmarked seed funding and mentoring support. I would have been eager to hear about their suggestions on how to tackle the devaluation of scientific work done and published in Africa, and enhance the self-esteem of young African scientists. To me, this would be an essential precondition for the next generation of scientists who, as the editors rightly remark in their preface, are a powerful resource for change and sustainable transformation. 

For science scholars interested in how working conditions in academia affect knowledge production and scholarly careers, this book provides a valuable read with insights from a continent that, in my perception, is still neglected in the field of STS.

Susanne Koch (Twitter: @sus_koch)is a sociologist of science at the Technical University of Munich (Germany). As a post-doc researcher and lecturer at the TUM Chair of Forest and Environmental Policy, she explores how power and inequality impact on the generation and uptake of (scientific) knowledge in forest- and environment-related fields.

Published: 05/18/2020