Some months ago, I pointed out that through active participation in the activities of professional organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), African scientists, researchers and academicians can help to reduce poverty. I emphasize on the IEEE because it is the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology. By active participation in IEEE and other related organizations, Africa will not be left behind in the area of technological innovation. With the vast natural resources at Africa’s disposal, the world’s poorest continent can, one day, turn out to be one of the richest.
Last week, my fellow lecturer at the University of Malawi, Bennett Kankuzi, lamented about the impediments that we, African academicians/researchers, face as we try to discharge our daily duties. One of these duties is research and doing it in most African Universities is a huge challenge. Due to lack of resources, low salaries, huge teaching loads, misappropriation of resources and poor planning, it is very hard for an Africa based African lecturer to produce any meaningful scholarly work.
On the other hand, Africans have, time and again, proved that they can do top quality research when they are hosted by world class Universities either as graduate students or faculty members. But when they come back to Africa, the same people can stay for many years without any meaningful publication. The difference between those of us who work in technology related fields and these other researchers is that for us to make a mark, we are expected to publish in world renowned journals and to present our works at high profile conferences because technology is universal. To achieve this feat, with all the aforementioned setbacks, is a mammoth task.
I became more research minded when I enrolled for an MScEng degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This was a 100% research degree. I had to come up with at least a few conference papers in order to pass the degree. I joined IEEE as a student member in 2005 because I needed access to Communications and Computational Intelligence conference papers and journals. I have been paying IEEE membership fees all by myself all these years. I have benefited a lot from IEEE over the past few years.
I have made lots of friends, most of whom are high profile researchers, from all over the world. These people helped me to perfect my MScEng research work by giving me constructive ideas. I have managed to produce a number of publications partly because of my hard work and partly because I was connected with the right guys.
As I plan for my PhD studies, these friends are helping me in shaping my research direction. One person that deserves special mention is Prof Wai-Keung Fung who works for the University of Manitoba. He serves as my IEEE mentor. Though we have never met before and that we just communicate by email, his assistance and advice has been great so far.
For one to make it big in technological research, networks are very important. African academicians/researchers with postgraduate qualifications must be maintaining links with their former supervisors and peers. More African academicians/researchers must join the IEEE. While in the IEEE, they must be frequently traveling and presenting at conferences. By so doing, they will get linked with other similarly minded researchers with whom they can go on to do some collaborative works and produce top quality journal papers.
In order to enhance IEEE participation and networking, I suggest that the Universities in Africa must consider implementing the following:
- Pay IEEE membership fees for members of staff who have demonstrated a good track record of research in the previous year. Shouldering the costs of IEEE membership fees from one’s meager pay can be a very painful experience. Some dependents do not even understand the importance of such expenses. The University of Malawi pays IEEE membership fees for its staff. I, therefore, call upon other African Universities to emulate the example set by the University of Malawi.
- Set aside travel and accommodation funds so that each and every member of staff, whose paper has been accepted for an international conference, can travel and present their paper at the conference at least once a year. The list of acceptable international conferences must be mutually agreed upon by University management and all concerned members of staff. This incentive will motivate people to start working hard in their research efforts. When I was doing my MScEng research at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, I was told that the University sets aside travel and accommodation funds for students to present their scholarly work at world class conferences. This motivated me to work very hard. And what was the result? My paper was accepted for the IEEE World Congress on Computational Intelligence which took place in Vancouver in July 2006. I traveled out of Africa for the very first time. I have since used this paper as a platform from which I have published a number of papers. I am now fired up for even greater heights of research.
Besides these two IEEE specific tips, African universities must also consider the following generic tips:
- They must ensure that teaching loads are reasonable in order to give members ample time for research. Teaching loads must be given based on one’s research output. Members of staff who do less or no research must get heavier loads while those who are active researchers must get lighter ones. With lighter loads, innovative ideas can spring up. Great research works can be achieved.
- They must create yearly awards for best researchers. This will surely increase the University wide research output.
- They must create links with world class Universities. This will enable faculty members from African Universities to take part in cutting edge research, come up with joint publications, patents etc. If you mingle with the best, you will one day be like them or even better.