This is the most important thing Africa needs to tackle complex problems
Scientific research often requires sophisticated equipment like radio telescopes or laboratories. This infrastructure is essential for scientific discovery. But another form of infrastructure is now essential too: synthesis centres. These specialise in bringing together experts across academic fields and geographies.
Today researchers must address complex problems that cut across disciplines, countries and socioeconomic divides. Climate change, infectious diseases, biodiversity loss and poverty are all problems that cannot be solved by any individual research discipline.
To address this challenge, synthesis centres offer something rare. They dedicate resources, time and space for highly diverse teams of researchers from multiple disciplines, institutions and locations to immerse themselves in a complex problem. These teams meet often and bring together diverse knowledge and datasets. Synthesis teams are a powerful way to accelerate scientific discovery and connect these insights to action.
For example, a synthesis team from academia, business and government applied lessons on how shared resources like fisheries and forests cope with change. They used this knowledge to make recommendations to the United Nations on regulating antibiotic use to prevent antibiotic resistance harming people.
A synthesis centre in Africa would massively improve the ability of researchers to understand complex problems like this. This understanding is essential for countries and communities to successfully manage the impact of people on the environment. And the impact of changing environments on people. There would be advantages to setting up the first centre in South Africa given its record in putting together multidisciplinary teams.
A global gap in synthesis centres
Funding agencies have recognised the strengths and cost effectiveness of synthesis teams for tackling complex social and environmental problems. There are more than a dozen centres internationally. But not one in Africa.
There are also very low numbers of African scholars at international centres. African participants make up 2% of the approximately 2700 members of the synthesis teams funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in the US. The result is that valuable African perspectives and research priorities are often overlooked.
Another weakness is that existing centres focus almost exclusively on natural sciences. Only one, the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, includes social scientists. No centre regularly includes humanities scholars in research teams. Yet many of the problems being investigated ultimately affect people.
For example, a synthesis team of public health scientists and marine biologists recently forecast that, due to a decline in fish catches, up to 1.4 billion people – many of them in Africa – won’t be getting enough essential nutrients for healthy pregnancies and childhood development.