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  • Europe must get its act together on science aid


The European Union is still struggling to meet commitments by its member states to increase science capacity in developing countries. To achieve this, closer alignment is needed between its efforts to boost research and to alleviate global poverty.

2005 began with high hopes that the world's rich nations would make a major commitment to boosting science and technology capacity in the developing world, particularly in Africa (see Will 2005 be the year of 'science for development'?).

To some extent, the hopeful — who argued, for instance, that scientific capacity is essential for meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals sustainably — have been disappointed.

Although the UK-led Commission for Africa, for example, emphasised the importance of science and technology, little extra money for capacity building has materialised. And leaders of the 'G8' industrialised nations made no explicit commitment in this direction at their annual summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.

All is not lost, however. On the African front, several countries are moving science up the political priority list. And in September, under the auspices of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), ministers endorsed a broad 'shopping list' intended to boost the continent's science capacity (see African ministers call for strong science collaboration).

Now, Europe's leaders have expressed support for such efforts. Their commitment was made in a policy statement on Africa, drawn up by the European Commission (EC), and endorsed last week at the six-monthly summit meeting of leaders of EC member states (see European leaders endorse role of science in Africa).

It states that "sound scientific and technological knowledge is indispensable as a basis for strategic and sustainable development policies and for efficient and effective development cooperation".

Opportunities ahead

Europe's challenge in 2006 and beyond is to turn this sentiment into effective action. At its heart is a political problem: how to bridge the gap between mechanisms to support European (but not developing country) research, and those to address poverty (but not science) in the developing world.

The time is right for a new attempt to bridge this gap. On the research side, the EC is about to embark on the seventh of its multi-year Framework Programmes. How the money will be spent has already been broadly decided, but the many details still to be worked out provide ample opportunities for creative thinking.

On the development side, the new policy on Africa approved last week sets its own framework for new initiatives over the next few years. It is now up to officials within the EC's development directorate-general, working with representatives of developing countries in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States, to work out how they should be implemented.

Furthermore, there is already a significant degree of activity on which both sides can build. The Fifth and Sixth Framework Programmes — covering 1998-2002 and 2002-2006, respectively — included funds that could be used to support scientific activity within developing countries, primarily to encourage international cooperation.

Several major projects were launched using funds in this way. One, for example, is the European-Developing Country Clinical Trials Programme. After a rocky start, this is now said to be moving forwards on an even keel, and represents a commitment of US$182 million for testing vaccines and treatments against HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Similarly, although various projects are still in the planning stage, the development directorate-general has made very limited specific funding available to build science and technology capacity through the European Development Fund.

Existing challenges

Despite such achievements, however, major challenges remain. One problem is that the rules for participating in projects funded through the current Framework Programme — even for 'collaborative' projects — favour European participants over their research partners in developing countries.

At the same time, developing countries partners frequently have difficulty in convincing European research groups to include them in their consortia when submitting proposals.  Apart from the programmes under which developing country partners are specifically required, this means that it is can be very difficult for developing country partners to enter consortia.

Additionally, many scientists in developing countries — and in Africa in particular — have struggled to meet selection criteria that are heavily weighted towards scientific excellence (difficult to achieve in regions that lack basic scientific infrastructure) rather than local or regional relevance.

The development directorate-general's relatively small amount of funding available for science and technology capacity building has, until now, fallen well short of what African and other countries need if they are to produce the trained scientists, technologists and engineers who can cooperate on an equal footing with European research partners.

Furthermore, some critics say research funding has been distributed in a fragmented way, with the main recipient projects (and scientists) in developing countries being those seen to be contributing towards European research priorities. This has inevitably tended to favour the larger developing countries — such as Brazil, China and India — over the smaller, poorer ones.

Overall, for these and other reasons, the EC has failed to meet even its own limited targets for supporting science in the developing world.

Three years ago, ahead of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a senior European official described the fact that Europe had agreed to spend up to 600 million euros (US$720 million) outside Europe — and particularly in developing countries — as "something of a revolution" and "an enormous leap forward" (see Europe seeks Third World research partners).

In reality, however, the amount actually spent has fallen far short of that promised. As the organisers of a meeting on scientific collaboration organised in Brussels in early October expressed it, "the low rate of participation of Third Countries across the Framework Programme is of great concern". They pointed out, for example, that "research teams from the developing countries face great difficulties in joining networks of excellence".

The need for more 'joined-up thinking'

The dilemmas and frustrations created by attempts to bridge the gap between mechanisms for funding research and those that support development are familiar to many working for the EC. But there are hopeful signs that the rules for the Seventh Framework Programme — which will last from 2006-2010 — will be modified to make this task easier.

Furthermore, both the new commissioner for research (Janez Potočnik) and for development (Louis Michel) have made clear their personal commitment to using European funds to build science and technology capacity in developing countries. Last week's commitment by the European heads of state provides important backing for moves in this direction.

But it is unlikely that the commission, on its own, will be able to bridge the gap successfully. As long as the EC research directorate-general's mission remains focused on strengthening Europe's technological competitiveness, and the development directorate fixed on alleviating the symptoms (rather than causes) of underdevelopment, the two will remain out of step.

A broader, integrated vision is needed — along with appropriate mechanisms to implement it. One way to achieve this, might be to set up dedicated regional programmes for scientific issues not covered by European research priorities, particularly in developing countries — an idea proposed at the Brussels meeting in October, which was organised by two French research agencies, the Centre for Cooperation on Agricultural Research for Development and the Institute for Development Research.

A single advisory body, made up of both European and non-European representatives, could monitor (and comment on) the EC's efforts to bridge the gap effectively.

It is equally important that the EC supports efforts to identify and meet the policy needs of developing countries in the area of science and technology.

And there also needs to be a greater commitment to communicating the results of scientific research into both the public and political arenas; even the EC's own research efforts frequently go relatively unappreciated and unexploited due to failures in this area.

Above all, however, responsibility rests with member states to demonstrate to the EC that they are genuinely committed to putting science and technology at the heart of development.  — and to taking the steps needed to ensure that this happens.

If there is a need for more joined-up thinking in Europe on this issue — just as there is within developing countries themselves — it exists not only in Brussels, but in national capitals as well. This is the real challenge for 2006 and beyond.

Details of the October meeting are here:

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