Tumaini Mutungi Kamulali spent years analyzing core data taken from the longest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. He’s from Tanzania, which borders the lake, but his analysis took place at the University of Arizona because it wasn’t possible to do paleolimnology in his home country.
“In Tanzania, we don’t have the funding for the project or the equipment; we don’t have our own paleolimnology projects,” Kamulali said. “We only work with those who come from China, the USA, and Europe.”
Although 3,573 high-impact geoscience articles are published on average each year, just under 4% have an African topic, and of those, less than a third have an African researcher as an author. That’s according to a paper published in Earth-Science Reviews in 2020 examining more than 180,000 articles in 21 high-impact geoscience journals.
Warwick Hastie, a structural geologist, senior lecturer at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, and one of the paper’s authors, said a brain drain from Africa was exacerbating a trend in which African collaborators were relegated to fieldwork and data collection while the “sexy geoscience” was being analyzed overseas. (As a note, the paper doesn’t broach issues of race; all three authors are white scientists working in South Africa.)
“Increasingly, people are finding it is cheaper and more efficient to collect samples in Africa and send [them] to a ‘Global North’ lab to get the analysis done,” he said. “Local collaborators are strongly being left out.”
Hastie saw this analysis imbalance firsthand when he visited a collaborator’s lab in China in 2018, which was full of high-tech analysis machines like a sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe instrument.
“We dream of having just one in Africa, and they have a room full of them—we don’t have the tools locally to make it happen,” he said.
Kamulali, now completing his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona, said that when he worked at the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute early in his career, local people would do the fieldwork, but “if you don’t have a degree, the overseas researchers do not see you as a coauthor.”
“I think the main problem is the funding; that’s why we don’t do the research on our own—geology projects are sometimes too expensive,” Kamulali said.
South African marine geologist Andrew Green, a professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal, doesn’t mince words about why he thinks there are fewer high-impact papers coming out of Africa compared with first-world or Global North countries.
“It really is a case of scientific imperialism,” Green said.
Colonial science, also known as parachute science, describes a phenomenon—most widely documented in field biology and public health—in which scientists from overseas (usually North America, Europe, or China) arrive in a developing country; use local know-how, equipment, and labor to extract data; and then return to their home countries to reap the lion’s share of the benefits by publishing papers in major journals.
“The studies done by visiting scientists are seen as world class, and what we are doing is seen as local,” Green said. “It’s not acceptable; we’re just as capable or even more, given our scarce resources.”
Green, who won AGU’s 2019 Africa Award for Research Excellence in Ocean Sciences, said he’s had firsthand experiences with international researchers who saw African colleagues as little more than a way to secure local research permits and field access.
“There have been times when I was a Ph.D. student, that visiting scientists were too busy to collect any data for the South Africans,” he said, adding that this was despite shared data collection being an acknowledged aim of the research project.
“It’s a bizarre thing; they never gave the locals the chance to be an author or be involved with the primary research,” Green said.
Green said he recently submitted an Africa-based paper to a major journal only to be rejected out of hand. He successfully appealed to the editor in chief of the journal, pointing to three similar papers from “first-world” scientists.
“Whatever you are doing in Africa seems ‘local,’ but you do something similar in the Northern Hemisphere, and it’s big news,” Green said, adding that many African researchers were afraid to “challenge the system” or “burn bridges” for fear of being further sidelined from funding opportunities.
Ahzegbobor Philips Aizebeokhai, a geophysicist and professor at Covenant University in Nigeria, said these problems needed to be addressed holistically.
“Any solution proffered should involve the researchers, universities and research institutes in Africa, funding bodies, and editors of the major journals,” he said, adding that funding was a big factor.
According to U.N. figures, expenditure on research and development in sub-Saharan Africa as a proportion of gross domestic product increased only a fraction, from 0.36% in 2010 to 0.38% in 2017. However, one initiative, presented at an event in January, is looking to inject nearly a quarter of a billion dollars (200 million euros) into a shared European Union–Africa infrastructure for geoscience.
Aizebeokhai, the 2018 winner of the AGU Africa Award for Research Excellence in Earth Sciences, said major journals could also have special issues dedicated to African researchers, adding that research fellowships for early-career and postgraduate students from Africa (like Kamulali) to work in research laboratories in the United States and Europe should be encouraged and increased.
In the meantime, the hurdles remain high for Africans in geoscience. Kamulali said that he would not have considered submitting his paleolimnological paper to a high-impact journal.
“For me, I would be scared to send it to a big journal.… To do that you have to be famous,” he said.
—Andrew J. Wight (@ligaze), Science Writer
20 February 2021: This article has been updated to reflect that Warwick Hastie is one of the authors, not the lead author, of the paper in Earth-Science Reviews. Michelle A. North is the lead author.
1 March 2021: This article has been corrected to reflect the amount of funding dedicated to a new European Union–Africa geoscience infrastructure.