After 2006's commitment to one per cent GDP spending on science, is Africa keeping up, falling behind or investing, asks Linda Nordling.
Thirty years ago, African presidents agreed to increase their investment in science and technology (S&T) to one per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP). The so-called Lagos Action Plan had no effect — in 2002, more than two decades later, Sub-Saharan African countries still spent an average of just 0.3 per cent of their GDP on S&T.
Since then, global interest in science as a tool for boosting development has re-grown and, in 2006, African leaders again committed to the one per cent target, this time agreeing to reach it by 2010.
But, how are they doing?
According to data published by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) earlier this month, Sub-Saharan states (excluding South Africa) were still spending the same amount on S&T in 2007 — on average just 0.3 per cent of GDP.
North African countries fared no better — their spending on science remained frozen at 0.4 per cent of GDP between 2002 and 2007.
So far, so depressing. But a closer look at the actual amounts spent, corrected for inflation, paints a somewhat rosier picture.
African countries chalked up respectable economic growth rates before the global recession took hold. With science budgets growing apace, this meant that Sub-Saharan Africa's yearly spend (not including South Africa) grew from US$1.8bn in 2002 to US$2.8bn in 2007.
In the continent's north, meanwhile, a slower, but still healthy, rate of economic growth meant total S&T spend rose from US$2.6bn in 2002 to US$3.3bn in 2007.
Half a cheer
Overall, the funding available for science in Africa — again excluding South Africa — grew by 50 per cent over the five-year period.
That is a lot of money. But it still only deserves half a cheer.
There is a well-established relationship between a country's investment in research and its level of development. In both Latin America and South-East Asia, fast-developing countries have all rapidly stepped up their expenditure on science and technology.
If African countries fail to increase their science spend faster than their economies grow, the continent will remain a developmental backwater.
Of course, the UNESCO figures are already two years old. But the chances that future surveys will show a rapid upswing for 2008 and 2009 are slim. Few African leaders are putting the money on the table.
Even those who want to invest are facing unexpected challenges. In April, Tanzania's president, Jakaya Kikwete, announced he would boost the country's S&T budget from 0.3 to 1 per cent of GDP in the 2009/10 financial year.
But, as Kikwete's science officials are finding, there is more to boosting a budget than just turning on the money taps — for example planning how to spend the money.
"A critical issue is to decide what kind of research is going to be supported," says Hassan Mshinda, director general of the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology. These choices will not be easy. Even though the funding kitty will grow, spending it effectively will involve giving more to some institutions than to others, and this could create tensions.
But it is crucial that funding decisions are based on merit, says Maxwell Otim, deputy executive secretary of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology.
"I am convinced that money for research and development should not just be dished out to researchers who do not qualify," he says, adding that nor should it be handed to academics who use their influence to leverage funds from "political godfathers".
Tanzania's decision has highlighted shortcomings in the country's mechanisms for supporting science, Mshinda says. The many science institutions in the country receive money from different government departments. Before new funding starts to flow, the distribution system must be updated, he says.
Streamlining these funding mechanisms will take time, and means that the president's lofty goal may not be reached next year after all.
Give praise where it's due...
But squabbling about percentages is beside the point, insists Mshinda. "We don't know if it will be one per cent or half a per cent, but the important thing is that there is this commitment to science. This is a bold move for an African head of state," he explains.
He is right — even a 0.2 percentage point increase would be a notable achievement on a continent where science funding stubbornly failed to grow for decades. As long as such momentum is sustained, it does not really matter whether the one per cent target is reached in 2010, 2015 or even 2020.
But while praise certainly is in order, it is also important to acknowledge that Tanzania is not there yet. Until the treasury signs the cheques, the one per cent target will remain a song to which nobody ever dances.
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, the Guardian, Nature and others.