The Connecting Minds conference took place 25-27 September 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, and was a collaboration between the GYA, the African Academy of Sciences, Academy of Science of South Africa, the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, and the Next Einstein Forum.
For many, this was the biggest and most diverse gathering of African scientists that they had ever attended on the African Continent, and brought together more than 150 individuals from the Natural and Applied Sciences, the Humanities and the Social Sciences, and representing dozens of countries.
The two-and-a-half days were designed to maximise conversations between participants, as well as highlight the excellent science being done by African scientists through spotlights, poster presentations and plenary presentations. To ensure deeper reflection on what was emerging through all these conversations, the last hour of the second day was dedicated to a “walkshop”, where participants walked and talked in small groups through the urban Karura Forest; this had the additional benefit of allowing participants to forge deeper ties with one another.
A key theme driving the conference was how the young scientists present could participate in realising the African Union Agenda of transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future by 2063. Given that Africa had the lowest ratio of scientists to the general population in the world (only 198 scientists to every one million of population compared to the world average of 4,000 per one million), and also given the complexity and urgency of both the global and local challenges that Africa is faced with, it was felt that this transformation could only be achieved through a radical rethinking of the way the scientific enterprise is carried out within the continent.
This was to say that the way forward not only lies in simply trying to train more scientists to bridge this gap, but would also require a combination of strategies to more efficiently utilise those that the continent did have by fostering stronger collaborations across the continent, and especially across disciplines. This, however, would also require concentrated efforts to institute the necessary reward mechanisms for collaborative science over individual excellence, as well as mechanisms to support greater mobility of scientists so as to ensure more efficient use of both physical and human capital.
A key ingredient in this shift, it was felt, was for African Scientists to challenge the usual narrative of a scarcity of resources in Africa, and the continuous push for the continent to “catch up”, and to instead recognise the myriad of opportunities that lie before the scientists. With a young and energetic population, a rich culture and history, and vast physical resources, it makes sense to join efforts with the efforts beyond academia to respond to our challenges so that everyone is pulling in the same direction. It was especially critical to engage these players because it was necessary to investigate the nature of the African reality within its historical and cultural context, and yet many African scientists were relatively divorced from this reality.
As the meeting drew to a close, participants left with a strong sense of confidence in the high quality and quantity of science taking place within the continent, as well as a need to make more connections all around. At the same time, the young scientists stayed cognizant of the obstacles the system presented, as well as their own limitations with regard to doing interdisciplinary science. These concerns, however, were overridden by the strong sense of possibilities that lay in acting together as a united force, whether through the national young academies or through other young scientist networks, knowing that they really had no choice in the matter: they were the generation that Africa was relying on to lead the charge to transform it into the global powerhouse of the future.