Harmonising 'science for development' funding would make science aid more effective, benefiting both donors and recipients.
Over the past two decades, development aid has been given increasing importance by many developed countries. The result has been a sharp rise in the number of individual, often uncoordinated, projects.
At one time in the 1990s, for example, Tanzania was home to more than 1,500 projects in the health sector alone, each with its own monitoring mechanisms, and funded by 50 separate organisations.
In 2005, recognising that such fragmentation wastes time and effort, aid agencies within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) committed to harmonising their aid strategies. At the same time, they encouraged recipient governments to use aid in a more focused and coherent manner.
So far the agreement, enshrined in a document known as the Paris Declaration, has had mixed success. But there is little doubt that, supported by countries such as Sweden, many nations (including Tanzania) are slowly using development aid more effectively, for example by channelling it through coordinated national plans.
Aid agencies now need to commit themselves to applying the approach to funding science in developing countries, which has so far largely been absent in efforts to implement the Paris Declaration. Greater coordination at both ends would be to everyone's advantage.
Change at both ends
This was a clear message to emerge from a two-day workshop in Mombasa, Kenya, earlier this month organised by the Network for the Coordination and Advancement of sub-Saharan Africa-EU Science and Technology Cooperation (CAAST-Net).
The meeting discussed ways to increase effective collaboration between African and European scientists on research funded by the European Union (EU). It highlighted the need to improve dialogue between the two continents if research partnerships are to be strengthened.
But it became clear that a prerequisite for improved policy dialogue is change on both sides.
In Europe, too much 'science aid' is disbursed through uncoordinated bilateral arrangements, sometimes responding as much to foreign policy objectives as to local needs.
In Africa, the activities of research groups and institutions too often reflect the interests of donor agencies, rather than nationally-determined priorities.
Lack of capacity
This fragmentation on both sides can undermine efforts to create the kind of robust national science policies that are needed if donor funds are to be used most effectively.
Of course, many other factors also weaken African governments' attempts to establish a strong national science policy.
For example, many African countries suffer from a low level of research capacity — the result of chronic underfunding of universities and research institutions. And the Mombasa workshop highlighted how, equally importantly, they also often struggle to manage research effectively, both at the political and institutional level.
Several participants, for example, complained that political commitments to increased science spending are not reflected in national research programmes, partly because of a lack of political mechanisms to make this happen.
Many other participants identified the lack of skills and training in research management within universities and research institutions as a key weakness.
Both areas are being addressed to some degree. The African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST), backed by organisations such as UNESCO (the UN Educational, Science and Cultural Organization), is promoting efforts to boost national science policies. And the African Union, to which AMCOST reports, is taking increasing interest in the field of research management.
But much more needs to be done. And a political commitment by both donors and recipients to apply the Paris Declaration approach to improve science aid management at all levels would be a major step forward.
There are potential drawbacks. More harmonisation inevitably means more bureaucracy for researchers and donors alike, in terms of liaising with recipient governments. One foreign diplomat concerned with implementing aid policy in Tanzania says that, even though the process of distributing aid is more streamlined, the amount of time spent in meetings with government officials is still as high as ever.
Furthermore, within donor countries there is inevitable resistance to giving up the flexibility of bilateral programmes for a more multilateral approach. Each country tends to have its own way of defining aid effectiveness, as well — often for historical reasons — as its preferred research partners.
Developing countries, particularly in Africa, that have benefited from these 'special relationships' will also be understandably reluctant to give them up.
And establishing a national system that both prioritises research that reflects national needs, and strengthens links between research outputs and their implementation, is a daunting task.
But these should be seen as challenges rather than obstacles. At a time when both developed and developing countries alike are increasingly accepting the idea that science has an important role in the development process, broad political agreement on how science aid can be managed more effectively can only be a good thing.