Feature Story: 29. March 2010

Mobilising the Diaspora: UNESCO and HP create a virtual “brain gain” for African and Arab universities

Can brain drain become brain gain?

Can brain drain become brain gain?

Many countries in Africa and some Arab states are sending “human capital” abroad. The African continent loses at least 20,000 qualified people every year, skilled professionals, scientists, academics and researchers, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the International Organization for Migration.

But experience has shown that these talented African and Arab expatriates can still play a meaningful role in their countries’ development. UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and HP see great potential in fostering cooperation with the Diaspora and the human capital it represents.

After a pilot phase involving five universities in Africa, the UNESCO-HP partnership has expanded the Brain Gain Initiative to an additional 15 universities throughout the Middle East and Africa – in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Senegal, Tunisia – and two each in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya and Uganda.

Twenty-seven representatives from 14 of the 15 new universities were trained in Johannesburg at the end of 2009. While one representative from each institution was typically an IT expert, the second was a senior researcher or, in some cases, head of an IT department or director of a computer centre. The first part of the training focused on how to install and operate grid servers and software; it was followed by an introduction to grid computing, with support from GILDA (Grid INFN Laboratory for Dissemination Activities) and South Africa’s Meraka Institute.

Representatives also had the chance to discuss scientific collaboration and possible synergies across a wide range of projects: grid development, e-learning, nanotechnology, scientific databases, medical imaging, pollution, e-waste recycling and climate change.

“The fundamental, underlying assumption behind the project is that advances in science and technology lead to economic progress,” explains consultant and Chief Project Scientist, Martin Antony Walker.

Science, a team sport

Some of the world’s most advanced science has become an international “team sport,” with scientists collaborating across continents and time zones. But it takes technology to play. The UNESCO-HP Brain Gain Initiative is using grid and cloud computing to empower university faculty and students who have stayed in their home countries to engage in real-time scientific collaboration with nationals abroad.

By logging on to a grid via a PC, scientists can access resources all over the planet. They can engage in research in fields like bioinformatics, physics, molecular science and meteorology. Or even explore the origins of the universe via the operational grid for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) - the world's largest scientific instrument. HP was the first commercial member to assist in its deployment.

Cloud computing will also play an important role in the UNESCO-HP project. The ‘cloud’ provides virtualised IT resources as services over the Internet. Different combinations of grid and cloud computing will be used as part of the project in different countries, depending on their requirements and available networks.

The Brain Gain Initiative seeks to make each participating university a “digital hub,” developing its research capacity to address local priorities and linking young scientists and other talented local individuals to university resources abroad, funding opportunities and international partnerships. The UNESCO-HP partnership provides equipment, including servers for grid-enabling and cloud computing technologies, training and support, as well as operational funds.

All the projects involve members of the African or Arab Diaspora who are contributing to the development of their home countries. “The Brain Gain Initiative is the fruit of our successful collaboration and the fact that it is now expanding is something we are all extremely proud of,” says Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, Chief of the Section for Reform, Innovation and Quality Assurance at UNESCO.

Coping with climate change

Africa has a particular need for climate change models. Brain Gain projects will put grid computing at the service of climatologists and other environmental science specialists in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia so that they can create more accurate models of regional weather patterns and contribute to future climate change predictions. Cocody University in Côte d’Ivoire will use Brain Gain technology to develop a regional climate modelling centre. The benefits will include a better use of existing (global as well as regional) climate simulation models as well as the creation of new ones. These models can help policymakers in West Africa in their efforts to reduce malaria, protect biodiversity, increase agricultural productivity and manage the flow of water to hydroelectric dams.

Tackling air pollution in African cities, e-waste in Kenya

In Cameroon, a Brain Gain project will deploy remote electronic sensors to measure urban air pollution in the capital city of Yaoundé – in real-time. At present, there is little or no air quality data. Christophe Dobda, a Cameroonian scientist working in Potsdam, Germany, says the new data might convince local authorities to do more to fight urban air pollution. He hopes to pioneer a system that will help in the fight against pollution in other African cities, too. "Our ultimate goal is to create a transfer of technology to Africa. I feel it is a duty."

Another project using remote sensors will trigger flood alerts on the coast of Cameroon. In Burkina Faso, a team from the University of Ouagadougou will collect and analyze data on pollutants in the Sourou River basin. Computer scientists will then create mathematical models and software that will enable a better understanding of water pollution.

Tackling the electronic waste problem in Africa could help the environment and create jobs at the same time. A Brain Gain project in Kenya will make e-waste recycling safer and less polluting by supporting the development of a sustainable e-waste management system. Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology has developed a training program in e-waste management and is opening a recycling centre for e-waste for western Kenya. It will also offer an e-waste management diploma – the first of its kind in Africa according to project leader, Simon Maina Karume. The project is necessary, he says “to counter an otherwise looming environmental disaster," because of "the alarming rate at which e-waste is increasing in our country."

Tunisia’s neuroimagery, Kuwait's really small Next Big Thing

In North Africa, a Brain Gain project supports the use of distributed computing to enhance brain imagery capabilities and speed up the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimers, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. It's just one of the many benefits that will result from the deployment by Tunisia's National School of Computer Science (ENSI) of an e-infrastructure linking Africa and the Arab States (ECUMA). With expat help, ENSI will also oversee the creation of Masters and PhD degrees with the Swiss HEPIA Institute.

Since their discovery more than a decade ago, carbon nanotubes have fascinated scientists and engineers. In the framework of the Brain Gain initiative, students of computer science at the College for Women in Kuwait University will study the feasibility of using carbon nanotubes in networking through simulations and experiments.  "It could radically transform the computer industry," says Professor Mohsen Guizani. "Carbon nanotubes are 500 times smaller than silicon-based transistors and 1,000 times stronger than steel. We will study their use in network communications and in the design of super strong nanotechnology-based computers for the future."

  As diverse as the Brain Gain projects are, they all have this in common: They allow students to engage in leading-edge, worldwide university projects without having to leave their home country.

“Technology contributes to overcome distances, to collaborate across boundaries”, says Gabriele Zedlmayer, Vice President, Office of Global Social Innovation, Helwett-Packard. “We look forward to building on our work with UNESCO and our expertise in grid and cloud computing to enable young scientists to connect with colleagues and university resources abroad. The project will also help them identify international partnerships and funding opportunities.”


Related links

More information about the ‘Brain Gain Initiative’

Brain Gain Initiative Whitepaper

Case Study: From brain drain to brain gain

HP Grants

HP grid computing

About HP

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