Bringing science and development together through original news and analysis

African centres of excellence need pragmatic approach

Your editorial (see 'Hard choices in Africa's bid for scientific excellence') suggests that science ministers meeting in Cairo last month debated whether Africa needs to create new centres of excellence or use existing ones.

But there was no such debate at the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST).

Since its first conference in November 2003, AMCOST has made specific decisions to promote the establishment of networks of centres. Some African institutes have already been designated and networked in this way.

AMCOST has not predetermined whether Africa requires new institutes, or should use existing ones. Ministers at the Cairo conference adopted criteria and guidelines for designating centres of excellence, but did not promote any single one.

The African Union (AU) summit, which takes places in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, next January, will not address whether Africa should adopt a 'model'. Indeed it is unlikely that heads of states and governments will devote time to this matter, since the debate does not require their attention.

My view is that Africa must take a pragmatic approach. There are certain scientific fields for which we will have to create new institutes, and others for which we can nurture existing ones.

In the area of biotechnology, for example, African leaders have decided to use existing national, regional and international institutes. In these cases, nodes and hubs of networks have been designated, and research and training activities are being undertaken in these institutes.

At the summit, African leaders are more likely to devote their attention to decisions that stimulate the emergence of long-term science, technology and innovation programmes and processes. For example, they will explore possibilities of ensuring that science, technology and innovation policy issues are considered by the AU summit, at least once a year.

They will also devote attention to improving regional and international cooperation in science and technology. But they will not be asked to either write or endorse a strategy for capacity building.

Experts and AMCOST are already developing and adopting specific strategies in fields such as biotechnology, mathematical sciences, and science and innovation indicators. These activities are being undertaken in African countries, and the summit will provide high-level political authorisation and support for such efforts.

The summit will also seek to enlarge the political constituency for science, technology and innovation for African development. But it is unlikely that the summit's agenda will require African leaders to debate a particular 'model' of establishing centres of excellence in science, technology and innovation.