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[PARIS] France is to give its official support to the development of 'scientific diasporas' — self-organised communities of expatriate scientists and engineers — in order to help increase the research capacity of developing countries, particularly in Africa.

The decision has been made in response to a recommendation in a report by the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), the French development research agency, that backing for scientific diasporas as "partners in development" should be official government policy.

The report, which was published in Paris yesterday (20 November), was written by a panel of international experts, and bases its recommendations on an analysis of existing scientific diasporas and their potential for growth.

Such diasporas have been growing over the past decade in response to increasing concern about the scientific "brain drain" from the developing world. In the United States, for example, 18 per cent of researchers come from developing countries.

The general principle behind this trend is that there are many ways in which such scientists can help to build up scientific capacity in their home countries without having to return to work there full-time. For example, they can visit for short periods to give seminars or training courses, or help provide access to information or other resources in a particular field of science.

Furthermore the development of the Internet has greatly facilitated networking between expatriate researchers from developing countries working in the North, opening up opportunities for them to work together for the benefit of their home countries.

The IRD panel, which was chaired by Remi Barré, professor in science policy at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris, concludes that scientific diasporas have a key role to play in boosting scientific capacity in developing countries.

But the panel also stresses that, as the phenomenon is a relatively new one, the scientific diaspora model is only "partially validated" and should be considered as part of an experimental process, and evaluated as such.

At yesterday's press conference, Barré said the panel's analysis reveals that that only a small percentage of expatriate scientists from developing countries are currently involved in scientific diasporas. "There is an enormous potential to increase their effectiveness," he said, urging that they should be supported by existing international development programmes.

The panel's analysis shows that one model does not fit all. In particular, it points out that the well developed collaborations between expatriate Chinese and Indian scientists in the United States with their home country institutions are inappropriate for many African countries, as these lack Asia's scientific infrastructure.

The panel also says that existing scientific diasporas in Africa show the importance of getting the stakeholder balance right. For example, it points out that The South African Network of Skills Abroad is seen by some expatriates as alien to their needs, as it is a government-run initiative which is not necessarily best placed to make use of the available resources.

At the same time, however, more informal networks that lack government or institutional backing often have difficulty realising their potential. The Moroccan Association of Researchers and Scholars Abroad (MARS), a relatively young but dynamic association, is confronted with this situation.

"MARS has not yet succeeded in establishing itself in Morocco as we would have anticipated," says Abdelali Haoudi, a US-based biologist and chairman of the MARS science committee. "Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons is the lack of strong ties…with the home country government."

The report stresses that without sustained links with host institutions, and a supportive environment in the home country, support for scientific diasporas will be "no more than window-dressing".

French officials say that African countries in France's "priority solidarity zone", such as Senegal, Mali, and Benin, are likely to be the first to benefit from the French government's support for scientific diasporas. But a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists that this "will not substitute for a development policy that aims to support the emergence of an internationally integrated scientific community in the home country".

Click here to order the IRD report on scientific diasporas (available in French/English).

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