Making Scientific Capacity in Africa: An Interdisciplinary Conversation

Making Scientific Capacity in Africa: An Interdisciplinary Conversation

Thursday, 12 June 2014 to Friday, 13 June 2014
Location: CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT – SG1&2


Ruth Jane Prince (University of Cambridge)

Noemi Tousignant (University of Cambridge)

Branwyn Poleykett (University of Cambridge)

Henrietta Moore (University of Cambridge)

Paul Wenzel Geissler (University of Oslo)


Large-scale initiatives by key institutions that support scientific work in Africa, like Wellcome Trust, Royal Society, DFID, and Gates and Rockefeller Foundation aim at, or require as an integrated component, the reinforcement of institutional, academic and individual scientific capacity – notably in fields like medicine and agriculture. Capacity is a goal shared by a diversity of African actors and their collaborators across disciplines. As a pragmatic strategy to improve wellbeing, an ethical commitment to fair and sustainable collaborations, or a political project to reverse long histories of spatial imbalances of power, knowledge and resources, capacity appears as an unambiguous good. And yet it raises unanswered – indeed, often unasked – questions about how scientific infrastructure and activity emerge from and act on social, institutional and material processes as they unfold within specific locations and histories

These are concrete questions pertaining to how capacity should be defined, planned for and invested in, as much as they raise theoretical issues about the imbrications of knowledge and technology with space, power, lives and materiality. Should funds be invested in universities or hospitals, people or equipment, training or infrastructure? How are entities such as institutions, people and apparatus connected and animated – by skill but also motivation, imagination and aspiration – as capacity to create and mobilize knowledge? What traces have past scientific circulations and collaborations left; how do current capacity-building initiatives attempt to build on or break away from these legacies, and what do they achieve? How and to what extent can scientific capacity transform African futures?

This two-day workshop will elicit and discuss questions such as these by bringing together leading actors of major capacity-building programmes with social scholars of science, technology and medicine in Africa. This conversation between the sciences, social sciences and humanities should allow a critical examination of capacity, but also invites the elaboration of new ways of sharing concerns, knowledge and analytical tools across disciplinary and institutional groups


  1. What is capacity; does it reside in minds, objects, networks; how is it tied to geographical place; how does it move and get moved; for what practical and moral ends; towards which un/intended long and short-term effects; what pasts does it remember and what futures does it anticipate?
  2. What can we learn from past experiences of capacity building and transfer, from the mid-20th century to the present? What did these initiatives leave behind in people, structures and material remains?
  3. How can the topic of capacity as a joint endeavour promote new forms of exchange between science, social science and the humanities, enabling the collaborative shaping of capacity-building programmes from planning through to evaluation?

Confirmed speakers include:

Professor David Dunne, Pathology, Cambridge
Professor Julie Livingstone, Rutgers University
Professor Wapu Mulwafu, Dean of the College of Social Science, University of Malawi
Professor Iruka Okeke, Haverford College
Professor Sharon Peacock, Medicine, Cambridge
Professor Peter Redfield, North Carolina
Professor Claire Wendland, University of Wisconsin
Professor James Wood, Veterinary Science, Cambridge


Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH)