Defining an appropriate policy-making role for Africa's scientific community requires a careful balance between 'science push' and 'demand pull'.
What role should the scientific community play in the formulation of science and technology policy? Or, to put more crudely a question that lies at the heart of current debates over the future of science, technology and innovation in Africa: should scientists be on top, or on tap?
Those who support the idea that scientists should be 'on top' argue that scientists themselves should primarily determine research priorities, whether it is a question of pursuing basic or applied research.
But proponents of the alternative model argue that researchers involved in publicly funded science should see themselves as servants of the state. Under this model, the task of scientists is not to set research priorities, but to find the most effective way of meeting priorities set by the political system. As some have put it: "science is too important to be left to scientists".
A balancing act
The optimal solution, as so often, lies somewhere between the two. The creative spirit at the heart of scientific enterprise requires a certain degree of autonomy to flourish. But if this spirit is not harnessed to the goals and values of the society that supports it — which means in practice contributing to technological innovation for social and economic progress — such support is likely to evaporate.
The challenge is to define processes that balance 'science push' and 'demand pull'. This is one of the tasks that will face Africa's political leaders when they meet at the next summit meeting of the African Union (AU), due to be held in Addis Ababa in January.
It also needs to be high on the agenda of this week's preparatory meeting in Alexandria that seeks to bring together scientists and policymakers to map a way forward to present to the summit.
Over the past two months, contributors to a SciDev.Net discussion group have highlighted some of the topics needing debate. These include the need for knowledge management, Africa-centric solutions, information flow and a model law on biotechnology (see Key issues for the AU summit).
Each of these issues is important in its own way. And each requires input from two sides.
The scientific community is best placed to define the responses needed to maximise the production of useful knowledge. On the other hand, the political community can determine whether these responses — which can be as basic as the need to invest more heavily in building scientific capacity — are compatible with broader social priorities.
Both communities are already developing their perspectives on the science and technology policy issues facing Africa. On the political front, much of this is currently focused through the activities of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), working with the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST).
Other policy developments are taking place both within the AU itself and other institutions, such as the African Development Bank. And this comes on top of the growing interest in science and technology in the finance and economics departments of individual African states, which see increased engagement in such activities as a way of joining the global knowledge economy.
In parallel, there has been growing awareness in the scientific community of the need to get its act together in order to make the most of new funding opportunities.
One manifestation of this has been the strengthening of scientific academies across the continent. These have created the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) that is intended to give a voice to the scientific community and strengthen and coordinate the work of its members.
The International Council for Science (ICSU) may also help discuss scientific priorities and identify how the scientific community can help to achieve them (see International Council for Science opens Africa).
Over the past few months, for example, ICSU's Regional Office for Africa has published the results of four separate task forces set up to look at the challenges facing the African continent, and how the scientific community can best respond to them. These cover health and human wellbeing; hazards such as pollution and deforestation; sustainable energy; and global climate change.
On top of this, many African scientists in the United States are actively supporting the idea of creating a set of centres of excellence to tap into the skills and expertise of the African diaspora. Known as African Institutes of Science and Technology, these are intended to kick-start a technological revolution in Africa in the same way that, it is argued, India benefited from a similar set of institutes set up in 1947.
The need for dialogue
So far so good; it is clear that many of the necessary building blocks are in place for a scientific renaissance in Africa. But two challenges remain. One is sustainability — hence the importance of the debate around the planned African Science and Innovation Facility (see Funding African science – an invitation for ideas).
The second is coordination, which means in practice that the links between scientific and policy communities must allow for active dialogue, hopefully leading to a consensus on which goals to pursue, and how to achieve them.
The gap between these two communities may be narrowing. Recently, for example, NASAC was given observer status to AMCOST — a move that will, in the words of the president of the African Academy of Sciences, Mohamed Hassan, ensure that "scientists have a voice in policy debates".
Conversely ICSU has promised to look at ways of ensuring synergy between the research priorities identified by its four working groups, and the concrete projects outlined by NEPAD in its 'Consolidated Plan of Action' for African science and technology.
There is no guarantee that an active dialogue between the scientific and political communities will ensure a successful outcome to these negotiations. There is always a danger that one side will seek to take the upper hand, and that the required balance between science-push and demand-pull will fail to materialise.
But one thing is certain. If this dialogue fails to take place — for example, if Africa's scientific community feels it is being marginalised by the political process, or conversely if it seeks to impose science-led solutions with little consideration of their wider social impacts — then failure is certain. Hopefully the Alexandria meeting will help ensure this does not happen.