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Disagreement on how to create collaborative centres of excellence in Africa could weaken the continent's efforts for scientific revival.

With less than two months to go before the African Union's science and technology summit, due to take place in Addis Ababa at the end of January, the prospect of clear and concrete proposals for action still hangs in the balance.

Last month's meeting of African science and technology ministers in Cairo made some progress in identifying key issues for the summit's agenda. But the meeting also made clear that, despite growing enthusiasm for science and technology for development, consensus between African states remains elusive on virtually every issue (see Ministers propose 2007 as 'year of science' in Africa).

One important example is the strategy needed to improve scientific skills and expertise. There is little doubt that without such a strategy Africa will become increasingly marginalised as the rest of the world pursues knowledge-based economic growth. It will also continue to lack the capacity to tackle the health, food, environment and energy needs of its own population.

There is also agreement that achieving the critical mass needed to provide world-class training and research requires focusing scarce resources on collaborative centres of excellence in the continent.

But experts, both in Africa and elsewhere, disagree as to whether this should be done by creating new institutions — or by building on existing ones.

In with the new

Both points of view have strong supporters. Those arguing for new institutions often point to India's four large science and technology institutes — the colonial powers' parting gift in 1947 — that have, they suggest, provided the bedrock for the country's current economic and technological boom.

This thinking also lies behind the Commission for Africa's proposal last year that the international community provide "up to US$3 billion over 10 years to develop centres of excellence in science and technology, including African institutes of technology".

It also forms the core of plans to establish the Nelson Mandela Institutes for Science and Technology — new regional centres of excellence spread across Africa.

Wole Soboyejo, chair of the institutes' African scientific committee, argues that these would allow African scientists in developed world universities and laboratories to lend their teaching and research expertise on an occasional basis (see A network of excellence for African development).

Home-grown solutions

But this model is sharply contested by others, who claim that focusing investment — and the continent's own scarce scientific talent — in new institutions would drain resources from existing universities and other research centres.

Yet these existing institutions, they argue, are better placed to meet the continent's scientific and technological needs at the same time as building scientific capacity across the board.

Narciso Matos, a former rector of the University Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, and chair of the International Development Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, United States, has few doubts that the focus should be on expanding the capacities of existing institutions (see African science: in with the old, out with the new).

Similarly Mwananyanda Mbikusita Lewanika, executive director of the National Institute for Science and Industrial Research in Zambia, argues that existing research and development institutions and universities "must form the core of home-grown scientific knowledge creation". They should also, he suggests, support African scientists "to lead to the development or adoption of technologies to address Africa's development challenges" (see Centres of excellence: not ideal for African science).

There are examples elsewhere to support both sides of the argument. Those demanding new institutions offering high level teaching and research can point to successful examples like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

In contrast, the British model, where research in many areas remains dominated by two institutions — the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge — each founded more than seven centuries ago, demonstrates that breathing new life into existing institutions can, in the right circumstances, be just as effective.

Responding to Africa's needs

Both models, of course, lie open to charges of elitism, meaning that the rich and powerful tend to benefit more than the rest. But of the two, and particularly in Africa where local loyalties are strong, working through existing channels with local political support seems to offer several advantages.

In particular, this approach is more likely to escape the fate of previous, externally-driven initiatives that have left the empty shells of failed institutional experiments scattered across the continent.

Still, two factors remain clear. First, any solution proposed for Africa must be based on the continent's own perception of its needs, and on the dynamics of its own economic and political environment. Success of a model elsewhere is no guarantee of success in Africa.

Second, concerted efforts must be made during next month's summit meeting to harness the enthusiasm for high quality science in both camps into a single strategy. This is likely to require some tough negotiation at the summit's margins. But a resolution that ends up endorsing one strategy will only alienate supporters of the other, and is likely to weaken both.

David Dickson, Director

Read a response to this editorial from an advisor to the New Partnership for Africa's Development