Information Needs for Basic Research: An African Perspective
Andrew M. Kaniki
National Research Foundation, South Africa
An effective science and innovation system in any country, and globally, depends on strong basic research and higher education infrastructure. In addition to knowledge production, basic research facilities, development of human resources, and applications are critical. In the course of conducting, applying, and managing research, both researchers and managers of research and innovation have information needs. These needs must be satisfied in order for the scientists and the science innovation system to function effectively.
This paper looks at these information needs from an African perspective. However, an African perspective of the science environment is not homogeneous. Africa and its research setting constitute a complex system and African countries themselves are heterogeneous. For example, in South Africa, the science sector was fragmented due to the apartheid system of government, under which many of the institutions of higher learning were divided along racial lines, thus creating ethnic institutions of higher learning. In effect, there were different kinds of developments in those particular institutions. These issues continue to bedevil many African countries.
INFORMATION NEEDS IN BASIC RESEARCH
In discussing information needs it is useful to understand the concepts of data, information, and knowledge, and how they relate to each other. Data are the foundation of knowledge. They are a set of symbols to which rules of syntax are applied. Data are observable facts of a situation or the ingredients that make up an event. They are unstructured, isolated, and context independent, but they are capable of being integrated within a particular context. When value is added to data by either contextualizing, analyzing, or categorizing them, they are converted into information.
Information is defined as ideas, imaginative works of the mind, and data of value that are potentially useful in decision making, question answering, and problem solving. Information makes one aware of the application of available data. The acquisition of information and its appropriate application can lead a person to a state of knowledge. Being informed is central to the generation of new knowledge or the understanding of a particular situation. When information is transferred from source to recipient or from seller to buyer, it remains available to both.
Knowledge may be defined as the whole body of cognitions and skills that individuals use to solve problems. It includes theories and practical everyday rules and instructions for action. Knowledge is based on data and
information. Unlike information and data, knowledge is bound to individuals. It is constructed by individuals and represents their beliefs and causal relationships. Therefore, knowledge is dynamic; it is fluid and ever-changing. There is a lot of it that is intuitive and mutable. It is expressed through use in a moment of making, deciding, teaching, or learning. Knowledge can often be captured and structured.
In research or knowledge production data, information, and knowledge are complementary and depend on one another. The availability of relevant data that can be appropriately contextualized is critical to knowledge production. Knowledge provides a person who has the know-how, the ability, and skill to make judgments and act on given problems.
We should focus on analysis and understanding of data, instead of simply emphasizing the technology, as Chrisanthi Avgerou states.1 If data were not contextualized, they would be meaningless. They must be transformed into information. For example, although an individual may recognize a series or set of numbers, those numbers must be organized. A group of numbers that are not organized is useless. If the set of numbers were organized in a spreadsheet, for instance, and were labeled as food production statistics over a number of years for different countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the data would become useful information. The individual could then ascertain the status of food production in the southern African region. With know-how and skill the individual could manipulate those data and forecast the future of food production and usage in the region. The ability to analyze the data and put them into context is of particular importance.
Individuals, groups, organizations, and governments require information and data to make decisions. Information communication technologies (ICTs) are critical for providing different channels for communicating and sharing relevant data. Some of the information used for decision making is internalized within individuals themselves because they know the information. The individuals and data may be very localized within a particular region. Often however, human problems, organizational decisions, and government alternatives are too complex to be dealt with simply by one’s internalized or localized information and knowledge. They require different types of data, information, and knowledge from a variety of sources because of the complexity and the multidisciplinary nature of the problems, particularly in developing countries. There is a need for data and information to be shared across regional borders.
An example is the issue of genetically modified maize. The decision by the southern African governments of Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe to use it depends entirely on their basic understanding of what the issues are and how its use may affect their people. Without that clear understanding and contextualization it is extremely difficult to make an informed and appropriate decision. In order to provide relevant data and information researchers should understand the various needs of the people and the various contexts within which the information is used.
BASIC RESEARCH, KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION, AND HUMAN RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT
Basic research, as defined by Frascati Manual, is experimental and theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts without any particular application to use in view.2 Research and development defined by the same manual is creative work that is undertaken in order to increase the stock of knowledge and the use of this knowledge to devise new applications.3 It is dependent on existing knowledge, which in most instances is basic research and information.
A strong base of research within a particular country or continent, such as Africa, is critical. Basic research and the environment for research in higher education institutions provide the laboratory and the place where the expertise can be generated. People at these institutions learn the basic skills for identifying and investigating natural phenomena and scientific problems, as well as interpreting and analyzing data.
See Chapter 10 of these Proceedings, “Information Technology and Data in the Context of Developing Countries,” by Chrisanthi Avgerou.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 1994. The Measurement of Scientific and Technical Activities: Standard Practice for Surveys of Research and Experimental Development—Frascati Manual 1993, OECD, Paris.
RESEARCH INFORMATION NEEDS IN AFRICA
As argued earlier, information needs, even among people, organizations, and countries of the same group or class, are context-dependent. There are variables, such as cognition, differences in facilities, accessibility to particular sources of information, channels that are used, and so on, that influence the nature of information needs. The degree of need for information will depend on the person’s education and other factors, as well as what is available within that person’s research environment.
In Africa in the Millennium, editors Maloka and LaRoux identify various issues that confront researchers in the political, social, and economic context of Africa.4 The authors highlight issues of interethnic conflicts, wars, regional fragmentation of African leadership, recurrence of military governments, economic stagnation, and international marginalization. They also highlight the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the related issues of xenophobia and the migration of scientific scholars—the scientific diaspora or brain drain.
Maloka and LaRoux also highlight the Internet connectivity constraints, commodification of knowledge, and the problem of knowledge production and dissemination as issues that impact the research community in Africa. Institutions of higher learning are now being pushed to move away from basic research into the development of products that they can sell to maintain themselves. World development indicators tend to highlight these factors as a measure of the relative socioeconomic status of the African context.
A few countries, such as South Africa and Egypt, have more than one science council that participate in and fund research. In most African countries institutions of higher learning depend on government funding for their academic and research endeavors. Because of the various pressures that these institutions face and the broad roles they are expected to play (teaching, research, and community development) little or no funds are allocated for research, knowledge production, and access to the latest information in various fields. For example, many African institutions of higher learning have not renewed their journal subscriptions for many years and have no research equipment or appropriate systems for managing research. The result is that research is pushed aside because of the difficulty in obtaining funds. This creates a situation in which academics are simply teaching and in many instances indulging in consultancies rather than conducting research.
Another peculiarity of African science is the lack of science innovation policies. Most countries have not updated their science information policies, strategies, and priorities. In some countries (e.g., South Africa), however, there has been some attempt to do that.
It is against this background that African researchers and research managers operate. An effective research process requires an awareness of who is doing what, what kind of research is being conducted within a particular field, and the data and knowledge that have been generated. These data and information form the basis for further research. Similar to their counterparts in the North, African researchers and research managers should remain updated and networked with colleagues in the same field; however, in the current circumstances the majority of African researchers find data access and sharing extremely difficult to achieve.
Research and innovation managers, who operate in the same environment, find themselves in the same situation. They need information about who the experts are in particular fields and comparative data for analysis of the output of institutions in particular countries. They also need information to analyze productivity. Most important, though, research and innovation managers need applicable and adaptable research performance indicators. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible for any country in Africa to have all the data that it requires, so African researchers should participate in the international arena.
In research and knowledge production, data, information, and knowledge are complementary and interrelated. The availability of research data that can be appropriately contextualized is crucial for knowledge production. It is
important to understand that factual data are relevant, and that African researchers and research managers should have access to them. Various databases are available, and new tools and techniques allow for data mining and pulling together the different sources of data in order to make sense of them. These databases must be inter-connected and populated with relevant data from Africa itself.
The African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) have become very important strategic initiatives. NEPAD, for instance, emphasizes the promotion of cross-border cooperation and connectivity and the utilization of knowledge currently available in centers of excellence and within each country. This assumes, of course, that the centers of excellence will continue to be maintained and remain excellent. NEPAD also emphasizes the development and adaptation of information collection and analytical capacity of the research community. It is not useful to collect data without performing sufficient analysis, correction, contextualization, and categorization. This initiative also emphasizes the generation of a critical mass of technology expertise.
At a February 2003 NEPAD workshop Dr. Ben Ngubane, the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology in South Africa, stated that the strategic significance of the NEPAD objectives lies in their focus on strengthening regional and subregional cooperation through the use of geographical information systems, the convergence of products and standards, quality, and control, and the integration of excellence into the spheres of biotechnology and natural sciences. It is critical that within the African region we contribute to the data generated around the world.