Why are Africans absent from Nobel Prize winners?

The Nobel Prize season has just ended and we know the winners of the prize in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, literature and peace for 2017. Around this time of the year, the Nobel Prize Committee selects some of the best brains in the above fields for recognition, usually for pioneering work.

The Nobel Prize season has just ended and we know the winners of the prize in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics, literature and peace for 2017. Around this time of the year, the Nobel Prize Committee selects some of the best brains in the above fields for recognition, usually for pioneering work.

Except for the winners of the literature and peace prize, the other laureates are mainly academics and researchers, holed away most of the time in universities and laboratories, engaged in work that ultimately impacts humanity immensely.

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.

Events of this nature where talent in particular areas is acknowledged and rewarded are quite common. We are used to the glamour events of the showbiz or sports world – the Oscars, Grammy Awards, Ballon d’Orr, and so on – where various personalities are recognised for their role in our entertainment.

These are usually glitzy affairs where celebrities of every sort strut their stuff on the red carpet resplendent in colourful and unusual attire that more often attract more attention than the wearer and is the subject of comment for many months after.

We know all of them by name and face – who starred in what movie, sang which song in what band, plays football in which club or has won which race and how often, and so on. People identify with them so much so that they can even go to blows if their favourite celebrity is slighted, however slightly,

But the Nobel Laureates, who knows them or what they do, who can recognise any of them or get into a fight on their behalf? Not many. I suppose even readers of this column can name only a few.

There is nothing strange about this. Human beings tend to recognise things that give them instant satisfaction, that lift their spirits, even if it is only for the duration of a performance. They identify with mass events and personalities that excite collective emotions, or that appeal to their tribal instincts. Sometimes they want to get away from the dreary life they lead and escape to another world of their fantasy or imagination.

This is humanity’s way of coping with an unsatisfactory existence – fleeing from actual reality to an invented one that the entertainment and sporting worlds readily provide.

The Nobel Prize is different and provides no such illusory escape that satisfies our inclination to fantasy. Rather, awards in the different fields seek to provide firm ground on which to stand and move to a higher level.

This article, however, is not a comparative study of the merits of different kinds of awards in various areas of human endeavour. Its main concern is the continued absence of Africans from the equivalent of an intellectual glamour show, which the Nobel Prize is.

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 blame for the dearth in advanced research. They continually poach the best brains from universities and make them heads of government agencies, or simply bring them to do routine administrative or technocratic work. Others are drawn into politics.

With this sort of trend, it will take long before any of our researchers and academics makes ground-breaking, pioneering work in the prize fields. However, with the abundance of diseases to research, it should be easier in medicine to make a first-time life-saving discovery much sooner.

But first, there must be more money put into research.