Africa Analysis: Science advisory body needs resources

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Speed read

  • COMESA launched its innovation council in April to help mainstream science advice
  • But there are question marks over its funding and administration
  • For now, it should focus on key policies, such as enterprise

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Will the innovation council created to advise African nations on science have enough funding, asks Linda Nordling.

Integrating science, technology and innovation (STI) across the whole government decision-making system can be a major challenge for policymakers in both the developing and developed world.

The tendency to house STI policymaking in its own ministry, or combine it with related areas such as higher education, can get in the way of its impact in policy areas like energy, health or infrastructure.

A 19-country African trade bloc has attempted to bridge this policymaking gap by establishing an STI advisory council made up of prominent academics, industry representatives and policymakers.

But its success will depend on the willingness of the trade bloc to fund and listen to the advice the council offers, as well as the quality of the advice the council is able to supply.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) launched its innovation council in April. Its chairman, Venansius Baryamureeba, is the vice-chancellor of Uganda Technology and Management University and former vice-chancellor of the country's Makerere University.

He will lead advisory efforts for the bloc, which stretches like a band across the African continent from Libya in the north to Swaziland and Zambia in the south. Member states are home to more than 400 million people, some of them living in extreme poverty.

The region suffers from many problems that could benefit from thoughtful application of STI, from conflicts on water use along the Nile to infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Many of these problems span national borders, so a multi-governmental approach using STI to solve them would seem to make sense.

But for an advisory council to help coordinate the region's policy responses, it needs strong buy-in from all member states as well as the resources to produce and promote the advice needed by decision-makers.

Political buy-in                

The COMESA innovation council does seem to have political buy-in. The bloc's council of ministers agreed in 2010 that STI had a strong role to play in regional development.

The first meeting of COMESA ministers responsible for science, technology and innovation in June last year led to the development of a regional STI strategy as well as the innovation council's creation.

According to its founding documents, the council will contribute to the development of a COMESA innovation roadmap ― a plan for boosting innovation in the region ― and advise on strategies for its implementation.

But it will also identify COMESA policies for which science, technology and innovation advice is required and oversee the preparation and submission of advisory reports, briefings and statements.

Everything is in place for the council to have the required clout and impact, says COMESA secretary-general Sindiso Ngwenya. "If the advisory role is done well, the profile of the innovation council across COMESA member states will be enhanced. Thereafter, member states will engage with the council to implement programmes also on a national level," he tells SciDev.Net.

Council concerns

But there are aspects of the new council's structure that could hamper its impact.

The first is its administrative capacity. The council's eminent members are not remunerated and will meet only three times a year at COMESA's expense.

For these meetings to deliver reliable and timely advice, the council will need some sort of administrative support. This could come from COMESA or from the member states themselves. However, if it fails to materialise, the council could prove toothless.

Which brings us to the second concern for the council: financial resources. For now, there is no specific budget allocated to it. Perhaps the expectation is that funding will be found from whatever COMESA initiative or member state calls on its advice.

If the council's guidance needs to be paid for upfront, policymakers might be less willing to draw on its expertise.

Time will tell whether COMESA's innovation council will fulfil the desired advisory role. To make the most of its limited resources, it would do best to focus on the region's flagship policy areas, such as boosting trade and entrepreneurship to encourage industrialisation.

In the short term, the council also has one immediate task: to oversee the design and launch of a regional COMESA innovation awards. The annual awards, with prizes worth a total of US$1 million, will celebrate individuals or organisations that have used STI to contribute to regional integration and development.

But while such prizes could lift the visibility of innovators in the COMESA region, the task, which the innovation council has been set up to provide, is evidence-based policymaking.

It would be a great pity if the innovation council, set up with such fanfare, ends up as merely a glorified prize-giving committee.

Linda Nording

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa news desk.