Africa's contribution to the global body of scientific research is very small and does little to benefit its own populations, according to a report from Thomson Reuters.
Like India and China, Africa suffers from a “haemorrhage of talent”, the report said, with many of its best brains leaving to study abroad and failing to return.
“The African diaspora provides powerful intellectual input to the research achievements of other countries, but returns less benefit to the countries of birth,” Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation at Thomson Reuters, said in a statement as the report was published.
Adams and colleagues, who use a Thomson Reuters database to track scientific publications, found that three nations dominate Africa's research output – with South Africa leading by a long way, ahead of Egypt in second place and then Nigeria.
“Africa's overall volume of activity remains small, much smaller than is desirable if the potential contribution of its researchers is to be realised for the benefit of its populations,” said Adams.
The report found that part of the problem was down to a “chronic lack of investment in facilities for research and teaching” – a deficit the authors said must be remedied.
Adams said the reason behind this was not simply money: “The resources available in some African countries are substantial, but they are not being invested in the research base.”
In fields of research relevant to natural resources, however, the study found a relatively high representation of African research as a share of world publications.
South Africa's 1.55 percent share of research in plant and animal science is the continent's biggest share in any field, it said, with this output surpassing Russia's 1.17 percent but well behind China's 5.42 percent share in the same field.
The report pointed to a few examples of countries which, despite low output, produced much higher quality research than larger neighbours.
Malawi, for example, with one-tenth the annual research output of Nigeria, produces research of a quality that exceeds the world average benchmark while Nigeria hovers at around half that impact level, the report said.
“The challenges that the continent faces are enormous and indigenous research could help provide both effective and focused responses,” it added.
The study is part of a series showing the changing landscape and dynamics of scientific research around the world.
Previous studies found that China had more than doubled its output of scientific papers to rank second only to the US in terms of volume, while Russia's influence in science and scientific industries was rapidly shrinking.