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Three key themes emerged from two high-level meetings last week on boosting scientific and technology capacity in Africa: the need for tighter coordination, better strategic thinking, and political leadership.

Whenever efforts are needed to boost flagging activity in any field — and capacity building in science and technology is no exception — the first temptation is frequently to propose a new international fund. The 1979 United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, for example, concluded that a US$250 million fund was needed to do this. Last year's report from the InterAcademy Council  (IAC) went further to suggest two new funds, one to support the creation of centres of research excellence, the other to provide more money for research programmes (see Academies call for two global science funds).

More challenging, but frequently more productive, is focusing efforts on building up what already exists. This may not necessarily involve novel initiatives; sometimes building work can require digging out rotten foundations in order to create more robust structures. But it does mean taking stock of available resources and needs, and examining critically how they can be brought together more productively. Less glamorous and headline grabbing, perhaps; but, as experience has shown, often much more effective.

The overriding need to adopt the latter strategy was highlighted last week by two separate meetings. Both focused on building science and capacity in the developing world, particularly in Africa. The first, organised in London by the British and Canadian governments and aid agencies, focused on creating more effective partnerships with Africa's scientific community (for reports and background papers, click here). The second was hosted in Amsterdam by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, and sought to explore ways of implementing other conclusions of the report from the IAC, a body set up by more than 90 scientific academies around the world.

Four days of debate, involving researchers, research administrators and aid agency representatives from both North and South, raised and discussed many ideas, some familiar, other less so. But three key themes emerged. Firstly, there is an overriding need to significantly increase the amount of effective coordination between institutional programmes and initiatives, whether at the national, the regional, or the international level. Secondly, coordination is not a goal in itself, but will only be productive if it is carried out within an agreed strategic framework. And thirdly, establishing and imposing such a framework requires leadership from those in a position of political authority (which may, of course, include a willingness to provide resources for a successful outcome to be achieved).

Improved coordination

The need for better coordination applies across the board. It is relevant both to different actors, and in different directions. As far as scientific researchers are concerned, for example, it was clear from contributions to both the London and Amsterdam meetings, particularly from the African researchers and research administrators present, that a vast amount needs to be done to encourage closer collaboration between research laboratories in Africa.

Within such countries, too much of the research effort remains highly fragmented, making it difficult to build a critical mass of researchers in any particular field. Furthermore, resource shortages can encourage rivalry between institutions that should be working together.

The same is true at a regional level; indeed many speakers identified regional collaboration as the most promising strategy for capacity building (for example through organisations such as the East Africa Community, and the Economic Community of West African States).

But the need for improved coordination applies not only to the scientific community. Equally important is better co-ordination between the funders of research — which in practice tends to mean international aid agencies and aid-oriented foundations. An analysis presented by Sara Farley, a consultant to the World Bank, pointed out that in Tanzania, 18 bilateral donors were supporting 1,371 projects in 2000, yet none was supporting research that might have prevented 3,600 lives being lost in floods that followed a period of unseasonably-heavy rain.

Even more important, as several speakers with long experience of science policy in Africa emphasised, is the need for better coordination on science-related issues between government ministries. Too often, projects and initiatives identified as important by either the scientific or the donor community fail to get off the ground because this assessment is not shared by the relevant government officials.

A national science policy cannot exist in a political or administrative vacuum; rather, it represents the aggregation of the science-related efforts of all government departments. Without coordination between these — as well as integration with the efforts of the private sector — the concept of a viable policy becomes meaningless.

The need for a strategic framework

Finally, coordination needs to be vertical as well as horizontal. Planning for science and technology, even at the individual project level, will only be successful if integrated into broader planning efforts, and the political backing that supports them. This means in particular that a country's policy on science and technology must be compatible with (and acknowledged by) its macro-economic policy.  Hence the need, for example, for the latter to accept the central importance of technological innovation in achieving economic growth, and thus to focus on creating robust systems of innovation (see Rethinking science aid)

But planning for science and technology also needs to feed into, and be seen to support, a country's social programmes. No politician or government official will support greater spending on science and technology if it appears to undermine efforts to achieve his or her priorities — or indeed those of his or her political constituency. Social demand must also play a role in determining research priorities; and channels need to be established to ensure that the needs of the poor are adequately heard and catered for within the process.

This need to integrate plans for science and technology, both horizontally and vertically, with all areas of government policy will only be met if a strategic framework exists within which it can happen. Indeed, this is where the concept of science policy comes into its own. For science policy is best seen as a set of guiding principles (such as the need to encourage closer collaboration between the public and private sectors, or to develop effective and appropriate mechanisms for protecting intellectual property) rather than a set of specific research initiatives (which can themselves often be left to individual government agencies).

Furthermore, the role of a government (or presidential) science advisor can often be the key to success. Superficially, the main role of such an advisor might appear to focus — as the title suggests — on providing 'scientific' advice on science-related issues that relate to political decision-making. How to handle genetically-modified crops, or the impacts of climate change, are two examples that come immediately to mind.

In practice, however, much of the activity of government science advisors in developed countries focuses not on what science should be done (or supported), but how science should be done (or supported). The most effective science advisors are those who have avoided taking on the role either of suggesting priorities (essentially a political task), or of making a special case on behalf of science. Rather, they have focused on establishing a common approach to the way in which science and technology should be supported across all government agencies. And many spend time ensuring that this shared strategic framework receives the backing of finance ministries (the type of vertical coordination referred to above).

Political leadership is essential

In the end. however, neither coordination, nor a shared strategic framework, are themselves sufficient to build capacity in science and technology. The third essential ingredient is political leadership. This not only requires those at the top of the political tree to produce enthusiastic words about the importance of science and technology to development. It also means that they must demonstrate — if necessary by 'knocking heads together' at cabinet level — that they mean business.

The importance of leadership is already widely recognised within the donor community. It is unlikely, for example, that the World Bank would have rediscovered the importance of science and technology for achieving economic development goals without the active encouragement of its president, James Wolfensohn. Similarly, the new priority being given to science within the UK Department for International Development (DFID) is due as much to external pressures (including those from the House of Commons and the government's scientific community) as any internal evolution; and how effective its next moves will be will depend heavily on the leadership of DFID's new chief scientist, Gordon Conway.

In Africa itself, the case for political leadership is even clearer. Those countries that are developing their scientific and technological capacity most rapidly are those whose presidents or prime ministers have taken a deep personal interest in this area, and have given their personal backing to political and policy initiatives in this field. President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif of Egypt come immediately to mind.

The main caveat here is the danger that, in each case, the enthusiasm of the individuals involved may be primarily based on a conviction that a strong science base will allow their countries to participate more effectively in the global knowledge economy. No problem with that. But less obvious is the extent to which political leaders who actively endorse the importance of science and technology are doing so out of a genuine commitment to help their respective countries achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals as a way out of the poverty that entraps broad sectors of their populations.

Here again, however, there is a paramount case for inspired leadership, although in this case it needs to be both political and moral. Perhaps the most notable example is the way that former South African president Nelson Mandela has used his political authority — even in 'retirement' — to press the case for a more scientific approach to the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS. Others are needed to promote with equal fervour the argument that, if appropriately and sensitively used, science and technology offer massive opportunities for the enhancement of health and the reduction of poverty across the board.

A message for the rich world

The clear message to emerge from last week's two meetings, therefore, was that enhanced efforts in these three areas — coordination, strategic thinking, and political leadership — hold the key to the successful development of science and technology on the African continent (and, indeed, elsewhere in the developing world). And that as such, all three should be at the heart of any initiative, big or small, designed to improve capacity in this area.

The task will not be easy. Planning around processes rather than products does not come easily to those who prefer to see economic or social development as a linear process that starts in the scientific laboratory (or the institute of technology), and then leads almost automatically, it is believed, to a dynamic economy. Nor is it easy to set up measures of success that can be used, for example, to create reward or incentive structures (as profit does in the private sector, or scientific citation in the academic community). Both require a paradigm shift in thinking about science that will not take place overnight (see Can Africa pioneer a new way of doing science?).

Furthermore, emphasis on the processes of decision-making does not mean that substantial additional funding is not required. Many African research institutions, whether universities or government research laboratories, remain chronically under-funded. There is no way that, even with improved coordination and leadership, their capacity to carry out research will be developed without a significant increase in the funding that is made available to them.

It is equally clear, however, that funding is only likely to be forthcoming if donors and aid agencies (including the development banks) are convinced that their money will be effectively used. And this means more than merely listing areas in which extra research effort is needed; it also requires ensuring that the additional funds are used in ways that are compatible with the demands for linkage, strategy and leadership outlined above. And it is up to the African nations themselves to demonstrate how this will be achieved. 

Two forthcoming events — the annual G8 meeting of leaders of the world's industrialised nations in July, and a meeting at the United Nations in New York in September — provide a window of opportunity for placing these issues on the international political agenda. An endorsement of the importance of science and technology to development at these two events could meet one of the three needs, namely that for political leadership. But unless it is combined with a genuine commitment to the other two priorities, enhanced coordination and better strategic thinking, the impact of an isolated statement could end up making as little difference as the 1979 UN conference commitment to a US$250-million fund for developing countries, which never materialised. And who remembers that commitment 26 years later?