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Updated [18 June 2008]

Molecular biologists in Africa will be able to tap into greater resources after South Africa signed a cooperation agreement with the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO).

The agreement, announced on 5 June, is the first for an African country and follows five years of discussions. 

South Africa will now have access to core EMBO activities and programmes, such as fellowships, courses and workshops.

Iqbal Parker, director of the Cape Town branch of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, told SciDev.Net that South Africa-based scientists can also apply for grants previously only available to scientists working in EMBO's 27 European member countries. The closing date for this year's applications is August.

Flexible long-term fellowships, most beginning in January 2009, "will allow South Africa-based scientists to apply to work at institutions in other EMBO countries", said Parker, who was a major driver of the agreement.

"Short-term fellowships will enable masters, doctoral and post-doctoral students to learn new techniques at Europe's top institutions," he adds.

Some practical training courses organised locally, but funded by EMBO, have already been run in South Africa in anticipation of this month's membership approval. Although no other African nation is in the pipeline for membership, the practical training courses in South Africa are open to scientists from across the African continent.

"For most African scientists, attending training courses in Europe is out of the question because of cost, time and visa administration hassles. Hosting these courses in South Africa encourages more scientists from throughout the continent to participate,'' says Tsungai Jongwe, a molecular biology masters student at the University of Cape Town Medical School.

''And there are many scientists from other African nations studying and working in South Africa, so they will benefit as well," Jongwe, a Zimbabwean, told SciDev.Net.

Hermann Bujard, executive director of EMBO, says that the agreement includes provision for European scientists to visit South Africa, to give them "insight into the magnitude of problems on the African continent".

"South African scientists will be empowered to employ the latest scientific advances to benefit their own communities."