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[KINSHASA] Delegates at the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) first national forum on research last month adopted a strategic plan to ensure that science plays a bigger role in the country's development than it has in the past.

More than 140 participants from the DRC and beyond attended the 23-26 May meeting. They included private and public sector researchers, and representatives of international organisations such as the World Bank and UNESCO.

The meeting's purpose was to provide an overview of scientific research in the DRC. Participants agreed a number of strategies for ensuring that science plays a bigger role in the country's sustainable development.

Delegates tasked the DRC's Ministry of Science and Technology Research with re-assessing the objectives of all research currently undertaken in the country. Research projects will be assessed for their likely impact on development and on the promotion of science and technology in the country. 

The forum agreed that the scope of what is considered research should be broadened to include indigenous knowledge and social science.

The delegates also said the government should communicate its plans for scientific research more explicitly to overcome the apparent lack of interest that decision-makers and the general public have for science.

To increase public awareness of the potential applications of science and technology, the Ministry for Education was urged to establish a programme to improve basic science education.

The forum asked the government to provide sufficient financial incentives to attract young recruits to the profession, and to encourage current staff to remain in the sector. Delegates also called upon the government to create a research fund and to gradually increase the research budget from its current level of 0.05 per cent of gross domestic product to one per cent, in line with the recommendations of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

Until now, research has not been driven by an attempt to address society's needs, and so has been unable to contribute significantly to the DRC's development, said delegates. 

The Congo Geographical Institute, for example, still relies on maps published in the colonial era. The Geological and Mining Research Centre's impact on the country's mining sector has been insignificant. And the National Institute for Agronomic Studies and Research's various outposts across the DRC have been unable to replicate the institute's colonial-era success in producing improved seeds, in either sufficient quality or quantity.

In order to address these problems, the forum urged researchers and institutes to exploit their research strategically. They recommended that the results and impact of research be made understandable to the wider public, and accessible to all involved in the sector.

Researchers should also seek resources for and encourage uptake of their activities through ongoing contacts with ministries, the private sector, craftsmen and farmers. A national agency should be created to promote the results of research, said the delegates.

The forum drafted a strategic plan to boost science and scientific research. Consisting of a series of principles and targets, the plan aims to steer science and technology towards the country's development.

The delegates agreed that the plan should only be adopted if a logical framework was also drawn up, detailing precise objectives, strategies, potential sources of funding, time bound activities, and expected outcomes that could be monitored.

The historian Elikya Mbokolo commented that it was necessary to prioritise the numerous projects proposed in the draft framework.

According to Bernard Kwinda, representing the World Bank, the draft strategic plan in its present form was too incomplete to attract donors' interest.  

Kwinda had addressed the forum in his opening remarks, and stated that he hoped the conference would lead into a formal meeting on science and technology research, where projects could be presented to donors for financing. The DRC's science minister, Gérard Kamanda wa Kamanda, requested in his closing speech that this meeting be organised as soon as possible.

"The outcome of this forum is extremely positive," UNESCO representative Komlavi Seddoh told SciDev.Net. "We are satisfied that its recommendations are concrete and realistic. It is no longer enough to identify challenges, we now have to overcome them. The forum has identified the tools to do just this."

Nazaire Nkouka of the InterAfrican Phytosanitary Council also expressed support for the forum's initiatives, but highlighted the need for delegates to transform them into action.

At Kamada's request, a forum secretariat has been established under the leadership of Mpeye Nyango, advisor to the Ministry of Research, and entrusted with pursuing the conference's initiatives and drafting statutes for the forum. 

The drive to hold the forum came from the national conference held in the time of former president Mobutu. According to Kamanda, the government had included organising the forum in its action plan, as a part of the preparations for a National Charter for Poverty Reduction, which is currently being drafted.
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