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Covid-19 could level the playing field for young African researchers

Universities urged to reduce postgraduates’ isolation by riding the digital wave

The global Covid-19 pandemic has made it near-impossible for researchers to travel to conferences, sparking a wave of innovation in virtual networking. For postgraduate students in Africa, this is an opportunity to gain better access to the highly internationalised world of science, a webinar heard this week. 

The webinar, organised by the University of Cape Town on 24 August, asked whether the virtual training and conferencing push spurred by the pandemic will help or harm African postgraduates, whose ability to travel internationally before the pandemic was constrained by a lack of resources and visa problems. 

The presenters agreed that recent developments would indeed serve African postgraduate students by normalising virtual engagement—even if it was unlikely that face-to-face interactions would be replaced entirely by online technologies as a ‘new normal’ is established. 

“Typically, African postgraduate students get the short end of the stick, but we might be able to challenge this if we ride the digital wave. Perhaps this pandemic is exactly what we needed,” said Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice-chancellor of UCT.

Daya Reddy, a professor of computational mechanics at UCT and president of the International Science Council, said that the boom in online networking could help young African scientists tackle a challenge they face more than their peers in the global north: that of professional isolation. 

“Most of the time there is no critical mass in their institutions, and there are difficulties in being able to travel,” he said. To his mind, the Covid-19 pandemic is “an ideal opportunity” to initialise virtual peer groups that would allow young researchers around the world to support and help each other with the day-to-day challenges of postgraduate life.

According to Reddy, the global pandemic offers the academic enterprise as a whole an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of new ways of interacting and compare them with the old ways.

“What I hope we will arrive at is a situation where we have different ways of communicating around the world, some of which will be actual and will involve travel, but not anywhere near the extent to what has been the case,” he said.