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[LONDON] A new enthusiasm amongst UK learned societies to reach out to scientists in the developing world led to a meeting last week to discuss how best to do it.

The scientific societies, each a network of researchers in a specific field, have undertaken small, isolated projects throughout the developing world.

These include subsidising membership for developing-country scientists, creating and accrediting courses, donating equipment, organising mentoring and conferences, helping establish sister societies and providing free access to journals.

"Learned societies are in a position to provide a lot of support — to effectively network scientists and work at a grassroots level. We've been doing this for centuries," said Liz Bell, head of policy and external affairs at the UK-based Physiological Society.

She told the meeting, held at the UK's Royal Astronomical Society last week (2 June), that she believes learned societies can best help development through dynamic networks of researchers who nurture science in small projects, as distinct from traditional government-controlled 'big science'.

"[Networking] is what learned societies do so well. The time is now right for learned societies to consider how our unique club of scientists … can be energised, organised and redeployed to provide comprehensive support for networks of scientists in developing countries," she said.

The meeting showcased projects, including the Mentoring African Research in Mathematics Programme — organised by the London Mathematical Society — in which UK mathematicians pair up with African mathematics departments.

"[The scheme is] changing people's lives. Young [African] mathematicians are feeling confident and able to take part in activities at the international level," said Stephen Huggett, programme secretary of the society.

In Ghana, the department of mathematics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi has teamed up with Frank Neumann, lecturer in pure mathematics at the UK's University of Leicester.

In the last two years Neumann has taught at the university; mentored postgraduate students; hosted students at Leicester; provided textbooks; guided researchers to free publications and helped to link the department with the International Mathematics Union.

Issac Dontwi, of KNUST, told SciDev.Net he recommends that African institutions participate in such partnerships.

The most useful aspect of the scheme, Dontwi said, was sharing information and resources. The partnership may have influenced the choice of Kumasi to host the newly-formed National Institute of Mathematical Sciences, of which Dontwi is the acting director.

David Elliott, executive secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that the strength of learned societies lies in their membership and their members' enthusiasm.

"All the projects emphasise a bottom-up approach, they emphasise the importance of individuals' engagement, their enthusiasm and commitment… small is beautiful … let us try to keep things local and small and at the level of the individual scientist," he said.

For some societies the partnerships may be a lifeline for them as well. Juliet Brodie, president of the British Phycological Society, said: "We're a tiny society, we're aging and disappearing in this country — we're losing capacity. There's a lot of capacity out there that we could use, capacity-building can go both ways."