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  • Oiling the wheels of Ugandan science

Uganda's president wants to use new-found oil money to fund science and cut foreign aid. But is he striking out too soon, asks Linda Nordling?

[CAPE TOWN] The discovery in Uganda last year of one of Sub-Saharan Africa's largest onshore oil fields might seem like good news for all people in the impoverished nation.

But, as experience from other countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria has shown, oil revenues tend to enrich the few and fail to improve life for the majority.

Could Uganda do better? President Yoweri Museveni thinks so, saying he plans to spend the oil revenues on national development programmes, including major investment in science and innovation. But there are fears he will reduce funds from other sources too soon.

"The oil money will be used to expand infrastructure, especially electricity generation, some aspects of road infrastructure and the railway, some aspects of higher science education as well as a vast network of vocational training, irrigation and scientific research," Museveni told his national executive committee on 12 January this year.

His government estimates that oil revenues could reach an annual US$2 billion by 2015, an eighth of Uganda's 2009 GDP, and that will not be all. Foreign investment into the country is expected to rise even before the oil starts flowing: The Economist predicted in March that external funding will double to US$3 billion this year as a result of the oil finds.

The money will help Uganda fulfil an ambition, stated in the government's budget for 2010–11, to cut its dependence on foreign aid — the country received US$1.66 billion in development assistance in 2008.

Ambitions for science

And the ambition does indeed extend to science — a luxury long supported chiefly by donors, but now targeted for direct investment by the Ugandan government.

But while Ugandan scientists have welcomed the government's interest in their fields, some fear that turning off foreign funding taps too quickly might starve science, at least in the short term.

Museveni's plan for spending the oil windfall is set out in a five year national development plan, published in mid-April, which focuses on innovation and applied science. Among the aims are the construction of four regional science parks and technology incubation centres to foster entrepreneurship.

The plan also calls for a dedicated science and technology ministry, something Ugandan scientists say has been lacking. There is also a training push to increase the number of Ugandans working as scientists from one in 1,000 to one in 100.

 

Uganda wants to follow a different path from that of oil-rich Nigeria

Flickr/Travelling Steve

Some areas of science will get more support than others. Strategically important disciplines such as agriculture, including irrigation, and petroleum geology received funding boosts in 2009. This year, the country's Makerere University introduced a degree in petroleum geology and management, and a training and research facility, the Ugandan Petroleum Institute, has been set up in western Uganda, where the oil fields are located.

The government's aim to 'nationalise' science and higher education funding is also clear from its national finance framework for the next five years, published this year. It predicts that international development aid for the country's universities will fall from US$5.5 million in 2010–11 to US$4.8 million in 2012–13.

Science loan controversy

But the most controversial move came in April when an official from the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST) told SciDev.Net that the government was not planning to renew the five year loan it received from the World Bank's Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) in 2006.

The US$33 million low-interest loan from the MSI is highly significant for Ugandan science. It is currently used to support 22 research projects and train about 3,660 scientists and engineers, some 100 at masters and PhD level. It has funded lab equipment, curriculum reviews, libraries and academic link-ups with private companies.

The first funding round was in 2007 and the money will last until 2012.

But the government now wants to take over the programmes started under the scheme.

"The government believes that science and technology is an important sector whose funding it must prioritise and take over. The government has therefore pledged to provide money that it would otherwise borrow from the World Bank," said Maxwell Otim, deputy executive secretary of UNCST.

Opinions are divided on whether the government is doing the right thing by turning its back on the MSI. One Ugandan scientist, who declined to be named, told SciDev.Net that, done properly, it would be "good news". "I think the MSI is a good learning vehicle for managing science, technology and innovation. If Uganda can now domesticate and drive the model, it will be very good for all of us," he said.

Indeed, the MSI has a good reputation in Uganda. Edward Tujunirwe, head of corporate and international collaborations at UNCST, told SciDev.Net: "The initiative has elicited one of the highest levels of interest and participation in science and technology programmes in the country. The challenge that we all have to face is to build on and consolidate its successes."

Makerere University has introduced a Bachelor of Science in petroleum geology and management

Flickr/grayarea

And some believe that Uganda will renew the MSI loan in any case.

"The government says it wants to nationalise research, but I don't see where that funding is going to come from," says Thomas Egwang, director general of Med Biotech Laboratories, in Kampala.

Bottom of the barrel

According to Egwang, there just is not enough support for science at cabinet level to see the national ambitions fulfilled. The president may favour the innovation agenda, but the country's finance planning and economic development ministry, which is in charge of the science budget, is "full of anti-science technocrats". Passing legislation on science spending will not be easy with this ministry in the way, he adds.

So, for a country that has yet to sell a single barrel of oil, Uganda has set its sights high. Even if the country avoids the inequalities that beset most African oil producers, it is not clear that the government will keep its promises on science. Experience shows that President Museveni has a tendency to overstate what he can deliver.

For example, ahead of the 2010–11 budget, he promised to raise scientists' salaries to international levels. The budget did boost salaries, but not by as much as promised.

It is too early to cheer for Ugandan science. Next year is election year in Uganda, and programmes that are not among voters' priorities could fall by the wayside.

"A lot has been promised before and nothing much has been delivered," says Tujunirwe.

With additional reporting by Peter Wamboga-Mugiriya and Esther Nakkazi

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.