Angola has the money, connections and political will to be a force in African science. But will it tackle inequality, asks Linda Nordling.
If you haven't heard about Angola's push to boost science and technology (S&T), don't be alarmed. It hasn't been widely reported in the international press; and the country's science policy, approved earlier this year, was only recently translated from Portuguese into English.
But Angola, a country rich in natural resources and with a fast growing economy, is well placed to become the next 'big thing' in African science. A rapid rise to a near one per cent spend of gross domestic product (GDP) on science — albeit not yet validated— could mean much for development in the country.
And there lies the test for Angola's ambition: will the S&T push contribute to narrowing the vast income gap between rich and poor?
The price of war
Angola is embarking on this journey from modest circumstances. For years after independence in 1976, it was best known for a bloody civil war that ruined the country's infrastructure and resulted in the deaths of about half a million people.
This turbulent history took a toll on the country's capacity to train scientists. Although there was a functioning higher education structure at independence, just 5,000 students graduated in the wartime years between 1976 and 2002.
In peacetime, between 2002 and 2008, there were 10,000 graduates, and new universities springing up across the country have since bolstered this capacity.
But while universities grew, science lagged behind. In 2009, the country's spending on S&T corresponded to a mere 0.004 per cent of GDP — much lower than the African average.
This low investment was reflected in the country's scientific output. From 2005 to 2009, Angolan scientists authored just 120 internationally indexed science articles, a quarter of the number racked up by much poorer and fellow Portuguese-speaking Mozambique. Angola's output was on a par with Lesotho — a country with an economy 40 times smaller.
A much brighter future…
Today, Angola is best known for its mineral wealth and booming economy. Oil and diamonds account for 50 per cent of its GDP and 90 per cent of its export earnings.
In 2009, Angola held its first national congress on science and technology. A political push for science then saw the country's S&T spend grow to 0.2 per cent in 2010 — and it is still growing, according to national sources.
Funding for S&T "could be very close to achieving one per cent of GDP," according to Domingos Neto, national director for science and research.
This investment will be directed by a national S&T strategy that was adopted by the Angolan government earlier this year.
The strategy  includes basic training and popularisation of science to build scientific literacy across the country. It aims to boost science that might benefit its lucrative extractive industries, but also prioritises areas that could diversify its economy and improve well being, such as organic agriculture, hydropower, regulation of water resources, and disease surveillance.
The strategy also proposes using revenues from diamonds to promote training and buy technologies that can be used in agro-industrial development, particularly to restore areas where mineral resources have been exhausted.
The country also has excellent international links to help it build capacity. Its main scientific collaborating partner in 2005–2009 was Portugal, followed by Brazil, and there are also good links with Canada and Cuba.
This year it also launched its first joint call for research proposals with South Africa. Angola's links to the engine of Sub-Saharan African science is weak, but that may not matter much, as Brazil is a stronger and possibly more dynamic partner in science. It may also be a better role model for bringing S&T to bear on national challenges.
…but will the poor benefit?
Angola has the money and, lately, the political will to make science a political priority. But ultimately, its ambitions in S&T will be judged on whether they help transform the country into a more open, transparent society whose riches are spread more evenly.
The lion's share of the country's wealth is in the hands of a small elite, with a large proportion of Angolans lacking access to basic needs such as healthcare and education. The income difference between rich and poor is one of the largest in Africa, if not in the world.
Some of the goals of the S&T strategy could help narrow the inequality gap. However, it remains to be seen whether this can be turned into a reality. It requires a more open culture and more transparency in the way science is dealt with politically in the country. Angola was the most corrupt among Southern African countries in 2010, according to the corruption perceptions index. 
A good first move by Angola's government would be to make public its science, technology and innovation investment statistics. For instance, the claim that the country is spending nearly one per cent of GDP on S&T deserves proper validation.
It should also demonstrate how this investment is helping the poorest in the country. The people of Angola deserve no less.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
 National policy for science, technology and innovation (Republic of Angola, 2011) [624kB]
 Corruption perceptions index 2010 – results (Transparency International, 2010)