Science left behind as Sudan divides

Published online 14 April 2011

Researchers face moving hundreds of kilometres as universities relocate from north to south.

Deborah-Fay Ndhlovu for Nature magazine

As Southern Sudan heads for independence, there are concerns that the country's science could suffer.
As Southern Sudan heads for independence, there are concerns that the country's science could suffer.

James Odra will have to move more than 1,000 kilometres this month if he wants to keep his job.

It is not the first time that Odra, a crop physiologist at the University of Juba in Sudan, has been asked to make such a trek. In 1989, at the height of Sudan's civil war, Odra, along with around 130 lecturers and 800 students at the country's second largest university, was asked to move from Juba in the south of the country to Khartoum in the north as the conflict between the former rebels — mostly Christian and animist — and the predominantly Muslim Sudanese government threatened to engulf the city.

A peace agreement ended the civil war in 2005 and, as a consequence of the secession vote in January this year, Southern Sudan is preparing to become Africa's newest state on 9 July. With his university now moving back to Juba, Odra must also make the return journey before the new term starts in May.

Odra is not alone. Staff and students of the University of Bahr el Ghazal, also currently in Khartoum, are being asked to move to the university's original home, more than 1,400 kilometres away in Wau; and the Upper Nile University's college of medicine and school of nursing are slated to move more than 600 kilometres from Khartoum to Malakal. All three universities have extended their summer holidays by three months in an effort to deal with the moves, which could leave the institutions without adequate staff, labs or teaching facilities, and which threaten to undermine scientific research in the new state.

A shaky foothold

The Sudanese government does not specifically fund university research, and in 2007 public spending on research amounted to just 0.29% of the gross domestic product1. Odra has funded his research by consulting for non-profit organizations such as the Fellowship for African Relief, which gave him a grant to carry out soil analysis in Western Sudan as part of a programme to revitalize farming in the region after the war.

Despite the dearth in funding, the country produced 146 scientific publications in 2008. Most African countries produced fewer than a hundred1.

But Odra fears that the relocations will set back scientific efforts in Southern Sudan, because the nascent country doesn't have the facilities or infrastructure to support research. After the 1989 move, the University of Juba's students were taught in tents until buildings to house them were completed in 1995. There are few signs that the situation will be any better this time around, says Odra.

The university is initially moving back to its old campus, left in a state of disrepair after being used as a base by government forces during the war. The institution has now grown to 12,000 students and more than 600 staff, so will struggle to fit into the buildings that it vacated in 1989.

Worse, Joseph Ukel, Southern Sudan's minister of higher education and research, says that his government has raised only about US$2 million of the US$12 million required to build new facilities for the three universities and pay staff and student relocation expenses.

Retribution fears

As a result of the move, Upper Nile University could be forced to close its department of medicine — a relatively active area of research in Sudan, accounting for roughly one-third of the country's publications each year2. The university's other faculties have been housed in a former secondary school in Malakal ever since it opened its doors in 1991. But the medical department has always been based in Khartoum, because Malakal has no laboratories or buildings that are suitable for conversion into a university faculty, and the hospital does not have the facilities required to teach medical students.

"I am not optimistic about moving to the South. It is going to be a disaster," says Bol Deng Chol, Upper Nile University's vice chancellor. "There is not even a place to rent. Other subjects can be taught under a tree, but you can't do that with medicine."

Chol is lobbying the government to leave the faculty in the north until hostels, lecture halls and laboratories have been built in Malakal. But he has yet to receive an official response.

"Politicians feel strongly about the move," says Chol. "They think of nobody's interests but their own."

The southern universities also face staff shortages, because about 80% of lecturers employed at the institutions are from the north.

Many are likely to refuse to move to the south, because they fear reprisals for the persecution of southerners by Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government's during the civil war.

Ukel says that the government hopes to attract southerners to take up unfilled university posts.

But because many of the universities have been based in the north, few southerners are qualified, even though Sudanese lecturers do not need to hold PhDs, says Chol. Southerners lecturing in countries such as Kenya and Uganda have refused to move home because of the lower standard of living in Southern Sudan, he adds, and the problem has been compounded by the Southern Sudanese government's failure to announce a pay scale for academic staff.

When Nature asked Ukel about the possibility that faculties would close owing to a lack of staff, the minister hung up.

Distant hope

Osman Kiri, an agricultural engineer at the University of Juba, says that the institution's graduate office will be asking lecturers at other universities whether they would be willing to supervise Juba's PhD students from a distance.

"The problem is, will we be able to pay the supervisors?" says Kiri, who gave up his own research in 2007 because of a lack of funding and facilities.

Kiri hopes that universities in the north will allow engineering and medicine master's and PhD students from the southern universities to use their laboratories and workshops. If that can be arranged, students from the north may not to be asked to move to the south.

The university is not admitting any more PhD students until it resolves the shortage of staff, he says.

Saadia Elsir, a physicist at the University of Juba, is among those who are adamant that they will not move to the south.

Elsir is waiting to take up a job in a new university that the north has promised to create using the former campuses of the relocated universities.

But Aggrey Abate, Juba's vice chancellor, says that no northerner has yet resigned, so all staff will be expected to return to their jobs when the university re-opens in May. He is optimistic that the relocation will improve research.

"We have different cultures, grasslands, woodlands and wildlife, which could not be researched during the war. We will add to the pool of knowledge in the world for everybody to use and compare," Abate says.

Odra is less upbeat. He has given up research and taken up an administrative post at the University of Juba, asking, "How do you do research in such conditions?"

This article is reproduced with permission from Nature online 13 April 2011