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Academies of science in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda have been chosen to receive funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help boost their ability to provide African governments and the public with advice on science-related issues.

The funding will come from a US$20 million grant that was awarded last year to the US National Academies — a consortium of bodies the includes the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) — to provide support for building the capacities of Africa academies during the next decade (see 'African science academies get US$20 million boost').

In line with the goals of the foundation, set up by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the programme will include specific efforts intended to improve policymaking on issues relating to human health.

"The goal is to enhance life for all Africans by making it possible for Africa's scientific community to more effectively tap its potential, both in meeting national needs and in creating a strong science base for public policy," Bruce Alberts, president of the NAS, said in a statement.

Alberts says he is keen for African academies to play the same role in providing science-based advice to top decision-makers as the NAS does in Washington, for example through the work of the National Research Council.

Following the announcement of the grant from the Gates Foundation last year, seven African countries were visited by a small team to assess their ability to absorb extra funding and use it effectively. In addition to the successful candidates, the team also visited Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal.

According to the academy, the science academies in Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda were chosen as the focal points of the new programme "based on their vitality and potential for success, the willingness of each country's government to draw on scientific expertise in decision-making, and the pool of available scientific talent".

The main goal of the initiative is to help the three academies engage broader communities of African scientists, medical and health care professionals, and engineers in policy issues.

Although the NAS says that it intends to guide such efforts during their early stages — for example by carrying out various joint activities — it is eventually hoped that each nation will create its own capacity to carry out such activities, under the leadership and support of the African academies.

"Some of the preliminary activities will [therefore] centre on helping the three academies develop the skills to plan and conduct scientific studies, organise major conferences, raise and manage funds, create and implement administrative procedures, and build lasting relationships with government officials and other stakeholders in their countries," the NAS said in a press statement.

In addition to the three academies that will received the bulk of the funding, separate strategic planning grants are being awarded to the academies of Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and Senegal that had also been short listed.

The initiative will also support various meetings and symposia intended to promote collaboration and joint learning among sub-Saharan Africa's science academies. This is partly a bid to counter criticism that focusing primarily on three countries runs the risk of doing little for scientists in other African countries.

In addition, Canada's International Development Research Centre has agreed to work with the US organisation to support the initiative, and has promised financial assistance to allow the participation of a fourth initial partner, widely expected to be Senegal.