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Gordon Conway, the newly appointed chief scientist at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), used his first public speech to call on scientists and politicians to listen to the needs of the world's poor.

Speaking at a meeting on capacity building in Africa yesterday (2 February) in London, United Kingdom, Conway said that it was imperative that development agencies such as his own listened closely to the demands of the poorest in developing countries — and not only to scientists and politicians there.

"DFID is a demand-driven agency and we respond to what Africa wants," said Conway. "But who defines that demand?" he asked the delegates. "Is it the science and technology elites who are represented in this room? Or is it the parliamentarians who are also here?" he asked.

"Where is the voice of those who are poorest and most excluded? My experience is that once you start working with poor people, they have a very clear idea of what they want."

Conway, the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation who has been in his new job for just eight days, revealed that he has been charged with developing a new science, technology and innovation strategy for DFID. He said that in his experience, science and technology in developing countries needed to have a minimum of six components.

These were: having the right equipment in the field or in laboratories; the ability to construct appropriate mathematical and computational models; a capacity to conduct experiments; workable policy and decision-making structures; effective management; and good communication.

Conway stressed the importance of 'centres of excellence' and promoting more public-private partnerships for research in developing countries. And he said that developing countries needed to invest more in their higher education. He acknowledged that funding higher education was not a priority for DFID, however.

He said that countries in Africa would need to expand their higher education in response to the increasing numbers of schoolchildren going to primary and secondary schools, and who will want to continue their studies in universities.

Conway also said that agencies such as DFID needed to have a core of in-house expertise in science, technology and innovation. "We often talk about capacity building, but donors too need to have capacity in science and technology, as well as good links between research councils and those who fund development research."

In his closing remarks to the conference, John Mugabe, scientific advisor to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), said he hoped that renewed interest to support science in Africa by industrialised countries would lead to concrete action, and not just vague political commitments.

"The [2003] G8 meeting adopted an action plan for science in Africa, but we have not seen much more about it," he said. "We hope that this new G8 plan will not be forgotten."

Mugabe also recommended that international donor agencies integrate their aid to Africa with the many indigenous development schemes in science and technology that were already taking place.

He said that several African countries had taken it upon themselves to reform their science and technology systems and were not necessarily looking for international aid to fund this.

Click here for SciDev.Net's coverage of the 31 January - 2 February meeting 'Building Science & Technology Capacity with African partners'