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As Madagascar's political unrest continues, Linda Nordling asks what long-term effects it will have on the island's scientists.

Last month, Madagascar descended into political crisis as a military coup, widely backed by the general public, ousted former president Marc Ravalomanana. Into his shoes stepped Andry Rajoelina — popular mayor of capital Antananarivo and a former disc jockey.

Although some scientists think the crisis will have little long-term effect on their work, others say that plummeting foreign investment and economic sanctions might stretch the island's resilient research community to breaking point. 

Censure

The unconstitutional nature of the power grab has elicited strong censure from the international community. Many countries, including Norway and the United States, do not recognise the new government. Others, including the European Union, are not accepting new applications for funding until a democratically elected government is in place.

Political isolation will also exclude Madagascar from pan-African science policymaking. The country has been suspended from both the Southern African Development Community and the African Union, meaning it will be banned from the African Ministerial Council of Science and Technology, scheduled to meet later this year.

The upheaval risks pushing Madagascar closer to becoming a 'failed state', says Elizabeth Dickinson, assistant editor for Foreign Policy. Her magazine, together with US think-tank Fund for Peace, compiles the annual global Failed States Index.

"Madagascar has — since the unrest began early this year — exhibited some of the symptoms of a failed state, as measured in our index," she says. These symptoms include the military's involvement in the political succession and falling foreign investment. South Korean firm Daewoo, for example, has pulled out of an agreement to cultivate swathes of Malagasy land.

Resourceful optimism

But despite the likely economical chaos, many Malagasy scientists remain positive. The universities, which closed earlier this year, have re-opened, shortening their Easter holidays to make up for lost time.

Philippe Rasoanaivo, research director of the Institut Malgache de Recherches Appliquées (IMRA), which focuses on biodiversity conservation and drug development, thinks the crisis will have little, if any, effect on his institute. Like most scientists on the island, he depends on international — rather than government — funding. "In my opinion, the political situation in Madagascar will not hinder the participation of Malagasy scientists in international collaboration as long as they are competitive, creative and innovative," he says.

He may have a point — since gaining independence from France in 1960, Madagascar has seen several violent coups and contested elections and yet its research institutions survive and its universities produce high-quality graduates. Fritz Hahne, director of the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town, concurs, saying "over the past five years we have enrolled 19 post-graduate students from Madagascar, and most of them were among [our] top performers".

Jacques Gaillard, a senior scientist from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) and an expert on developing world science, also agrees. "Malagasy people are resourceful," he says — when crisis hits Madagascar, its scientists resort to self-reliance. 

But he is less optimistic that the political turmoil will not harm foreign research funding. Sanctions by organisations such as the World Bank and the European Union will "no doubt be very detrimental to the short term development of higher education and research activities in Madagascar", he says.

National priorities

Even if enough money comes in to sustain Madagascar's scientists through the crisis, it seems scant reward for their work and dedication. Successive governments' neglect of science and technology policymaking has left the country without a strategy for augmenting and spreading the outputs of its talented scientists and graduates to the entire population.

NowGaillard is compiling a review of science in Madagascar for the UN Educational and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It should be published later this year and is intended to provide a framework for creating a national science policy in the country. [1]

One clear priority is to increase national funding for science. The country's research and development spend is low — Gaillard estimates it is probably a bit under the African average of 0.3 per cent of GDP. Salaries are often pitiful, with many scientists forced to take a second job to make ends meet.

Increased funding would also address Madagascar's dependence on international finance. At 90 per cent, the island has the highest level of scientific articles co-signed by foreign colleagues in the world. But this could contribute to a mismatch between the research carried out in Madagascar and the country's development needs, says the UNESCO review.

According to the review, a national science policy should also address brain drain and the island's ageing scientific work force. And it should ensure research results are used in policymaking.

And practicalities...

But how soon Madagascar's government — whatever its composition — can turn its eye to science policymaking is not at all clear.

 "A group has been established to work on [the national science policy], but that was before the recent events. I have no clue if it will be possible to resume the group's activities in the near future," says Gaillard.

Rasoanaivo agrees. "Right now, and maybe for the near future, the government has many urgent things to think and to do. The best way for Malagasy scientists [to demonstrate their worth] would be to show ability and competence to do good research work," he says.

But a source close to the previous administration has a more sombre outlook. "The present government has already said publicly that it will abandon all that we have done and started, including the [science] reform. This is causing us great difficulty, but there is nothing we can do against armed military men," he says.

This week, it emerged that Madagascar's new administration has created a ministry for higher education and research, with a minister, M. Althanase Tongavelo. This is encouraging news. But the ministry's future will hang in the balance as long as questions remain over the new government's legitimacy.

Madagascar's scientists deserve better.

Linda Nordling is former editor of Research Africa.

References

[1] Gaillard, J. Le système national de recherche scientifique et technique à Madagascar: Contribution au renforcement de la politique de recherche et d'innovation. État des lieux & proposition d'un cadre conceptuel pour l'élaboration d'une politique nationale de recherche et d'innovation. Draft to be completed and published by UNESCO in 2009.

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