Enabling Science in SubSaharan Africa


As program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of International Science and Engineering, Elizabeth Lyons’s objective is simple: to help scientists, especially NSF-funded scientists, do more and better science. Accomplishing that objective, though, requires a light touch and deep knowledge of the research potential of the part of the planet included in her portfolio. And that kind of knowledge cannot be gained from a Google search.

All NSF directorates have overseas research in their portfolios, funding science in many different areas of the globe. NSF invests between $15 million and $22 million in Lyons’s area, sub-Saharan Africa, annually. Comparatively, the grant portfolio Lyons oversees directly is small. That’s because funding science directly is not her main responsibility. Her main responsibility is to enable science.

The Office of International Science and Engineering exists primarily to support and enhance the work being done by NSF-funded investigators overseas. “I have my own grants to [oversee],” noted Lyons during a telephone interview just after returning from a 3-week visit to the Lake Tanganyika region of Africa. “But I also really try to strengthen the NSF-wide activities in Africa.”

Enrich, Put People Together

Making science work better requires subtlety and diplomacy. What’s hard, says Lyons, is to enable without constraining. “The word ‘coordinate’ is almost too strong [for what we do], because we don’t want to tell [scientists] what to do.” Instead, Lyons and her colleagues work to make new connections and strengthen existing ones. “We want to enrich, and put people together as much as possible.”  

In an age when most of the information we need is available online, Lyons’s information gathering requires a different kind of network. During her trips overseas–NSF budgets are tight, which translates to only one precious trip of about 3 weeks per year–she has meetings. Lots of meetings. She meets with PIs. She meets with students. She meets with foreign collaborators. She meets with government ministers. But not all her meetings take place in offices. “A lot of what we fund is field-based work. So to actually get out and see the geologists, or the geographers, or the biologists, that’s how you really find out what’s working and what’s not.”

“When I go over there, I want to talk to the U.S. scientists ? working over there, and their students, to find out how it’s going ? how the project’s working and who they are working with.”

Finding scientists to collaborate with is only the first challenge. The next one is to find money to support such an international collaboration. NSF can support American researchers, but supporting foreign science falls outside their charter. “The National Science Board … has told us to work more in developing countries,” Lyons observes, “but we need to find the partners who can help pay on the other side.” Many nonprofits, national and international research organizations, and other government bodies are active in the region. Lyons can often assist the non-U.S side of the collaboration by matching scientists up with potential sponsors.

Well-Packed Hard Drive

Once the collaborators are found and the funding is in place, there’s still work to be done. Part of it is helping researchers locate secure, productive facilities and deal with logistical and environmental complexities in a part of the world where Internet access and electrical power may be intermittent and dust and other environmental nuisances pervasive. Another part of the job is consciousness-raising, helping (e.g.) other NSF program officers, many of whom, at a given time, have just rotated in for 1- to 3-year stints, to understand that research in Africa poses unconventional problems (by American standards) which might call for unconventional solutions. A well-packed hard drive, Lyons points out, may fulfill the information needs of an African collaborator just as well as a multimillion-dollar infrastructure project, and it will definitely be cheaper.

In some sense Lyons has been training her whole life for this job. She spent her young adulthood collecting biology degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Duke universities. She did field work for her Ph.D. in evolutionary biology, which gave her insight into the nature of much of the research done in sub-Saharan Africa. She was a founding member of Amherst’s graduate program in organismic and evolutionary biology, and taught ecology and evolution at Northwestern University.

Her work at NSF–which she joined in 1996–has always involved interdisciplinary programs, helping her develop the mindset, and to make the connections she would later need, to excel at international work. And when, several years ago, she left NSF to follow her husband–he’s a Ph.D. scientist on a policy track–that trip took her to Kenya. (“He had followed me twice already,” she notes. “It was my turn.”) Lyons spent her time as a trailing spouse organizing a regional conference on invasive species–an experience that introduced her to many of the people she would work with when she returned to NSF–and doing field work on ants, elephants, and other critters.

“I got to know a lot of different organizations in Kenya. And because the meeting [I organized] was regional, I also made good connections in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania.” Lyons returned to NSF, and when, soon after, the person in charge of the sub-Saharan program retired, Lyons was ready and willing to step in. Still, it wasn’t something she planned for.  “It was serendipitous.” 

Although certain challenges are common to science everywhere, science in sub-Saharan Africa is in some respects a different world, and Lyons’s job is to chart the terrain for the benefit of scientists at home and abroad. “The only way to find that out is to actually go out and do it, to be on the ground, increasing the range of information that we have, so that I can make it available to anybody at NSF or in the community, so that they can do great science in Africa.”

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