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Why Africa Has So Few Nobel Prizes In The Sciences

Even as it celebrates this year's literature prize going to Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, Africa is again completely absent from the list of Nobel winners in science. In research as elsewhere, money is the key.

Photo of students at the University of Namibia in Windhoek

Students at the University of Namibia in Windhoek

Gado Alzouma

Nobel Prize recipients from around the world have been celebrating their achievements this month at their respective award ceremonies. But besides Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner in the literature category, the African continent was largely absent from the awards — most notably in the science categories. But this is nothing new.

With the notable exception of Egypt, which boasts a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and South Africa, which has five in chemistry, physiology and medicine, over the years Africa only has obtained Nobel Prizes for literature or peace. By comparison, the United States leads the way with 296 laureates, followed by Germany and Japan, with 94 and 25 awards respectively.

Many would be tempted to find the explanation for this poor African performance in a lack of "predisposition for science" or "scientific spirit" among our people. This is not the case: The capacity to produce scientific breakthroughs and to make discoveries does not lie in any "superior intelligence," in a supposed "genius," in alleged "genetic predispositions," or in the culture of the people.

All human beings, provided they have received the necessary education, are equally capable in this respect. The two most important factors contributing to performance in scientific research and technological innovation are the level of economic development of the country — and, consequently, the size of the human and financial resources allocated to them — and the number of scientists relative to the size of the general population.

​Research requires millions

The academic or scientific performance of different countries does not lie in innate predispositions that are supposed to characterize the "spirit" of this or that people. They reside first and foremost in the economic conditions and the financial and technical means available to research institutions, as well as the quality of the education offered to the members of a society.

Today, scientific research is carried out in laboratories, often costing millions of dollars. Some of these laboratories are so expensive that even very rich countries have to join forces to build and operate them.

Harvard's revenues are close to $6 billion, or nearly half the GDP of Niger, a country of 25 million people.

In the U.S., the budget of a university, a research center or even a small college is sometimes higher than the GDP or the annual budget of some countries with several million inhabitants. For example, Harvard University's operating revenues alone are close to $6 billion, or nearly half the GDP of Niger, a country of 25 million people. Harvard's reserve fund is $50 billion, more than 11 times the annual budget of that African country. Harvard is not only a meeting of exceptional minds, it is above all an unparalleled budget.

If some less wealthy countries are exceptions to the rule — such as Hungary and Poland, which have won 11 and 8 Nobel Prizes in science, respectively — it is because they allocate a relatively large share of their budget to education, science and research. In 2018, Hungary had 3,238 researchers per million inhabitants and Poland had 3,106. These figures are above the world average (1,150), although they do not reach the levels of Germany (5,212) and France (4,715). Africa had only 198 researchers per million inhabitants that year; even South Africa and Egypt, which are among the most advanced countries on the continent, had only 518 and 687 researchers per million, respectively.

There is thus a close correlation between countries’ levels of wealth and the quality of their publications and the status of their universities and researchers in international rankings. UNESCO indicates, for example, that 93% of global research spending is attributable to the G20 countries alone. They are therefore the most scientifically and technologically advanced. The probability for an American scientist to win a Nobel Prize in science is therefore infinitely higher than for an African scientist.

Photo of a scientist looking in a microscope in a lab in Mwense, Zambia

Scientist working in a lab in Mwense, Zambia

Lou Jones/ZUMA

​Following China’s lead

Only economic development can unleash all the potential contained in what some — especially on the right — call the "genius" of a people. The capacity to invest in scientific research is proportional to the capacity to produce patents, to make discoveries and to find innovative solutions to the problems that people face.

In fact, a very large number of American Nobel Prize winners are of foreign origin. Many of them would certainly not have been awarded if they had not benefited from the conditions offered by American research institutions. For a long time, China was not among the most scientifically successful countries, even though a significant number of foreign citizens of Chinese origin were laureates.

China has a long tradition of scientific discoveries, often topping the podium in international competitions, and some of the most selective courses at prestigious American universities have up to 80% Chinese students. But the Asian giant has only five Nobel Prize winners in science, including four in physics and one in physiology/medicine; it’s almost on par with South Africa. But it will probably not be long before China catches up. Now that it has become an economic powerhouse, its scientific output (i.e. number of publications and most cited articles) is higher than that of the U.S.

There is absolutely no predetermined destiny on the path of scientific and technological development. There is no reason why Africa cannot ascend to the level reached by China. We must, like Beijing, build strong economies, educate our people, fight against old beliefs and superstitions and, above all, unabashedly promote the scientific spirit and research as an integral part of our history and culture.

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