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Last month, SciDev.Net launched an email discussion group to ensure that the views of African scientists, policymakers, science communicators, research funders and investors are heard in the run-up to the January 2007 African Union summit. They discussed the role of science, technology and innovation in the continent's development.

We are publishing this mid-way report now as many of the individual comments have implications for the discussions that will be taking place during the Congress of African Scientists and Policymakers in Alexandria, Egypt (27-29 October 2006).

The discussion group is open to all and currently includes members of government, researchers, research directors and nongovernmental organisations. Invitations to join the group were sent to SciDev.Net's registered users in Africa and to key organisations and contacts. This last group was instrumental in ensuring that the launch was widely promoted.

Below are some of the key themes and comments that have emerged so far. These cover knowledge management, Africa-centric solutions, information flow, model law on biotechnology as well as a number of other issues.

To view the on-going debate or add comments visit SciDev.Net's African Union Summit news focus

Knowledge management

"In Africa we have a problem of not managing even the little knowledge that we have created," wrote Nolwazi Mbananga of the Medical Research Council of South Africa in one of the first contributions to the discussion group.

A recurrent theme was the idea that African research for development was not so much generating knowledge but harnessing it.

"There is enough body of scientific knowledge lying on the shelves of most institutions. The problem is utilising it. How can development make use of the already-generated ideas?"  wrote Tutui Nanok, Technology Development Solutions, Kenya.

"The last time I checked, Africa has a vibrant African Academy of Science, a pragmatic regional office for Africa of the International Council for Science, and a strong membership in the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World [and] several international research institutions," wrote Danladi Dada Kuta.

This researcher argued that the African Uniion (AU) summit should be wary of generating further bureaucratic institutions and should instead develop and collate existing African research activities.

"Africa is very quiet about knowledge management and knowledge sharing for better science and innovation," wrote Nolwazi Mbananga.

He argued that the AU should push for knowledge management funding in Africa, saying research project funding requires a proportion to be spent on knowledge management.

Proper knowledge management would avoid unnecessary repetition, he said:

"Therefore science and technology should go hand in hand with funding and strategy of managing the knowledge that is produced so that it can be reused."

Others took the notion further and said Africa needed to shift gears and move away from mimicking or adapting Western science towards creating a local demand for science and innovation from Africa, for Africa:

"There is a need (probably not from the scientists) to develop our institutions and academies of science just that one step further so as to trigger not just uptake, but innovation and demand for it," wrote Samuel Mwangi of the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge.

In an earlier post, he suggested that in order to be innovators, rather than assemblers, African researchers and policymakers needed to reinforce infrastructures that could have been ignored in the continent's race to develop:

"As the chancellor of Nairobi University recently observed in response to a speech by senator Barrack Obama, Africa took a quantum leap over 100 years from stone age to nuclear science, and as such may have lost the structural and institutional systems that the rest of the world developed over the 400 years or so it took to develop from agrarian to industrial economies. This is something that must be addressed, now. Otherwise we will remain assemblers of machinery, and continue training more assemblers."

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Africa-centric solutions

Across the board, participants were in agreement that African science should be directed so as to solve African problems — in essence, that the continent needed to re-possess and 'Africanise' its research. One strong voice in favour of this came from outside Africa:

"Science and technology is not an end in itself but a means to achieve equality and development," wrote Maria Arce Moreira, policy advisor to Practical Action — a nongovernmental organisation working with poor communities to develop appropriate technologies. She argued that African science policy needed to consider the social split between the very poor and the privileged elite.

Another interested and involved westerner, Jacques Hamel of the UN Economic Commission for Africa wrote that science and technology knowledge in Africa needed a radical shift from the adopted concepts of western science to "Afro-centricity". Among others, he supported matching foreign research and African funds.

But African participants also raised this question.

"The fundamental questions still remain," wrote Samuel Mwangi (Kenya Research Centre of Indigenous Knowledge): "have we stopped the desert creep? Are we reducing pollution? Is our food production higher, of better quality and conforming with accepted standards of chemical residue and such? Are our people healthier? Has infant mortality and age expectancy of our vulnerable populations improved, and how significant is this improvement?"

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Flow of information: open access and effective communication

Good science, underlined the group, depends on the availability of information. In this regard, John Dada of the Fantsuam Foundation in Nigeria wrote: "The African Summit 07 needs to consider promoting open access to scientific literature as a priority".

Another (anonymous) member contributed his experience attempting to set up an open access journal. "To my disappointment," he wrote, "I have encountered both ignorance of the benefits and a surprising lack of interest in the concept."

He thought that Africans were more interested in publishing in large commercial western journals that would facilitate their applications for foreign funding. "Instead of trying to get the AU involved, open access publishing must develop from the researchers first, with the support of enlightened university faculty management," he concluded.

The group also discussed the importance of communicating policy decisions. An email asking about the group's awareness of the public consultation process to inform recommendations for an African research funding facility (known as 'ASIF', or African Science and Innovation Facility), elicited only one positive response. Several respondents said they had never heard of it.

"The survey never made it to my corner of the woods here in Nigeria, and I certainly would have liked to say a thing or two about it," wrote John Dada.

Sylvia Uzochukwu, director the Biotechnology Center at the University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, Nigeria, said: "I was not aware of any survey and I have participated in quite a few by other other organisations online."

The questionnaire of the public consultation process was posted on the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology website in August for a few weeks.

"It seems that a key topic for science policy in Africa in general, and the AU summit in particular, is to improve the communication networks so that news of this sort reaches the people who want to have a say about it before the consultations close," concluded Linda Nordling of Research Africa.

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Model law on biotechnology

One contribution, again from Sylvia Uzochukwu, related to the model law on biotechnology.

"It looks as if the authors of the document set out to keep genetically modified products out of Africa," wrote Uzochukwu. "It is targeted at the multibillion dollar international genetically modified (GM) seed companies, forgetting that African scientists will one day themselves need to apply for field trials and commercial releases. No researcher in Africa can meet the draconian conditions in that document."

"I think that our leaders should quit fighting the big GM seed companies," continued Uzochukwu, "and wake up to the fact that when it comes to agriculture and food, it is Africa that really needs biotechnology, not the developed countries. We should do everything possible to ensure that the biotechnology revolution does not pass Africa by (as did the green revolution) by promoting the responsible use of biotechnology in Africa, especially in agriculture. That document is designed to kill biotechnology in Africa."

Her comments elicited a response from Worku Yifru, legal affairs officer for the Convention on Biological Diversity, writing from Ethiopia.

"The model law has several provisions, which, if translated into national laws, would create difficulties to the development and safe application of modern biotechnology," he wrote. "However, let us not overlook the fact that it is just a 'model' — a suggestion and one possible option to consider when designing biosafety systems at national level."

"In my view, it would be appropriate at this stage to avoid or reduce the risk of adverse effects of the products of modern biotechnology on Africa's rich biological diversity by taking time to monitor how these products behave in the African environment. … It would be more beneficial to invest [in] adding value to minerals, forest products and related products, including the bioenergy sector. These are more likely to be promising areas for African countries than modern biotechnology for the moment," said Yifru.

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Other issues

"The summit should discuss the possible information communication technology-related inputs for expanding and integrating climate-monitoring (national meteorological observation) networks and capacity enhancement for existing and new regional data hubs with mandates for agricultural applications in realtime data management." M.T. Usman, department of geography, Federal University of Technology, Nigeria.

"Since the consideration of gender confronts our attitudes, beliefs and positions as individuals, it will be very interesting to see whether and how the AU leaders would capture this challenge and how they would respond to it. It will definitely not be enough to focus only on women but also work with men to change attitudes that deter the involvement, inclusion and recognition of women's contribution and engagement in science and technology." Maria Arce Moreira.

"The current global energy crisis has the biggest impact on the poorest countries, many of them non-oil producing African countries. However, this crisis has also resulted in biofuels and bioenergy being taken seriously for the first time as alternatives to fossil fuels. … Maybe the AU should consider discussing this and suggest the creation of a pan-African biomass and bioenergy task force of some sorts." Anonymous

"African science has come along way we must admit. However we have failed to look at what helped us be where we are. Basic products that we use in the shops are mostly developed by the private sector. Research might have started at public institutions but has been picked up and enhanced by the private sector. … The mobile phone technology has been successful because of private companies, not the government. Seed companies are enhancing research [more] than public research institutions.

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Please note that although names and affiliations are mentioned where available, the comments reflect the views of their authors, and not necessarily those of the institutes they are affiliated to.

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