The Nobel Prize season has recently finished and we know the victors of the prize in material science, science, pharmaceutical, financial matters, writing and peace for 2017. Around this time, the Nobel Prize Committee chooses a portion of the best brains in the above fields for acknowledgment, generally to pioneer work.
With the exception of the victors of the writing and peace prize, alternate laureates are predominantly scholastics and specialists, holed away more often than not in colleges and research facilities, occupied with work that at last effects mankind massively..
Of course, some Africans, going back to Albert Luthuli in 1960, have won the Peace Prize before. Perhaps this is because we have had more than our fair share of conflict. Some of them were worthy winners. Others were a vehicle for the preferred view of the committee.
The literature prize, too, has been won by a few African writers, the first being Wole Soyinka. Some might argue that words are common to all humanity and storytelling has a strong tradition in Africa, and in any case does not require specialised laboratories.
Still, many will say we should get more winners of the literature prize. Indeed East Africans feel aggrieved that one of their own, whom they think deserves it, has been overlooked.
We can draw comfort from the fact that intellectual work, regardless of its origin, is the common heritage of all humanity. But of course it would be better to have some of our own among the intellectual celebrities.
So why are there no African winners of the Nobel Prize in physics, chemistry, medicine or economics? It is not because we have no brilliant scientists. We have them in plenty and they are doing sterling work.
The simple answer is that there isn’t enough research going on, largely because of the nature of universities in many African countries. Universities are still largely teaching institutions. There is very little money set aside for research. Research capacity is still underdeveloped. Some universities are even struggling to pay their teachers to carry on the basic function of teaching
Research institutes do exist, but only to answer the day to day questions of existence in such areas as agriculture or disease control. There is little time, money or even incentive to go into discoveries of inventions that would have a profound impact on the whole of humanity.
Governments share some fault for this deficiency. They persistently poach the best brains from colleges and make them heads of government offices, or basically bring them to do routine authoritative or technocratic work. Others are drawn into legislative issues.
With this kind of pattern, it will take some time before any of our analysts and geniuses make earth shattering, spearheading work in the prize fields.
This is the only time the public gets to know and pay tribute to some of the smartest people alive. But soon after, they are usually forgotten by most people